Friday, September 02, 2016

SpaceX rocket explosion setbacks for commercial space

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket exploded Thursday on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, dealing a blow to the California-based company's ambitious space exploration project, and even America's commercial space industry.

The explosion, which occurred at 9:07 a.m. EDT (1307 GMT) as SpaceX prepared to perform a rocket static fire test ahead of a planned satellite launch this weekend, destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and the payload it was carrying. But no injuries were reported because the launch pad has been cleared before the routine test.

"Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation," SpaceX founder Elon Musk said via Twitter. "Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon."

The U.S. Air Force's 45th Space Wing, which is responsible for public safety during launches from Cape Canaveral, said in a statement that initial reports indicated no causalities and no threat to public safety.

Meanwhile, roadblocks were set up in and around Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as a safety measure, the 45th Space Wing added.

Pictures circulating on social media showed that heavy plumes of smoke rose into the sky from the SpaceX launch complex. Local media said building shaking can be felt miles away.

"I am being told the explosion shook the entire facility," Robin Seemangal, a reporter with the Observer newspaper who was one of the first to report the blast, tweeted, adding that his source at the facility initially thought his office had been hit by lightning.

The Falcon 9 rocket was originally meant to launch the 195-million-U.S.-dollar AMOS-6 communications satellite for Israel's Spacecom on Saturday. In October 2015, Facebook and satellite operator Eutelsat announced they have bought some of the satellite's broadband capacity to provide internet coverage to Sub-Saharan Africa.

"I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who was currently in Kenya, said in a statement. "We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided."

Eutelsat said the explosion's impact on revenues is estimated at around 5 million euros (5.6 million U.S. dollars) in fiscal year 2016-17, 15 million euros (16.8 million dollars) in 2017-18 and 25 to 30 million euros (28 to 33.6 million dollars) in 2018-19.

SpaceX, founded in 2002 by billionaire Musk, has been the face of American commercial space industry. It has been hired by the U.S. space agency NASA to resupply the International Space Station using its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship.

The company suffered a major setback in June 2015, when its Falcon 9 rocket exploded midair just minutes after liftoff during its seventh space station resupply mission.

The exact impact of Thursday's accident on SpaceX was not clear now, but it's almost certain some of the company's scheduled commercial launches will have to be delayed.

"Lessons learned from today's anomaly will help improve future operations and continue the expansion of access to space," said Eric Stallmer, President of the American Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

"We have full confidence that SpaceX will carefully investigate and remedy the anomaly, and safely return to launching as soon as possible."

U.S. senator Bill Nelson said the SpaceX explosion is a reminder that spaceflight is a "risky business."

"As we continue to push the frontiers of space, there will be both triumphs and setbacks," Nelson said in a statement. "But at the end of the day, I'm confident that our commercial space industry will be very successful."

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