SpaceX explosion destroys Facebook satellite

CAPE CANVERAL, Fla. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket — and the satellite Facebook was to use in Africa — exploded on its pad during a test Thursday morning at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. No one was injured.

Witnesses reported seeing a fireball, hearing multiple explosions, feeling shock waves in buildings several miles away at Kennedy Space Center and seeing a plume of smoke rising from Launch Complex 40 just after 9 a.m.

“SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today's static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload," SpaceX said in a statement. "Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”

In a tweet Thursday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, said the issue "originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown."

The rocket was scheduled to launch the Amos-6 communications satellite for Israeli company Spacecom at 3 a.m. Saturday. The satellite built by Israel Aerospace Industries also was destroyed.

Facebook had planned to use some of the satellite's capacity to expand its initiative in Africa.

"I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent," Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on his Facebook page. Zuckerberg is currently in Africa. "We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone."

The rocket was preparing for a test-firing of its nine Merlin main engines as a standard check of their readiness for launch, and the area was cleared for that hazardous operation.

The Air Force's 45th Space Wing confirmed an explosion occurred at 9:07 a.m. It was not immediately clear whether the failure began on the rocket or ground equipment.

Brevard County Emergency Management Director Kimberly Prosser said the incident posed “no hazards to the general public.”

Kennedy Space Center's Emergency Operations Center personnel were monitoring the situation and standing by to assist if required, while the environmental health office monitored air quality to ensure it is safe for employees, said spokesman Mike Curie.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the accident was a reminder that spaceflight is risky.

“As we continue to push the frontiers of space, there will be both triumphs and setbacks," he said. "But at the end of the day, I’m confident that our commercial space industry will be very successful.”

In addition to launching satellites, SpaceX is one of two companies shipping cargo to the International Space Station commercially, and one of two companies preparing to launch astronauts to the space station under NASA's Commercial Crew Program.

SpaceX had hoped to launch two astronauts on a test flight to the station within a year.

The Falcon 9 suffered its only in-flight failure in June 2015, when a strut broke in the rocket's upper stage, causing an oxidizer tank to rupture. The rocket has launched successfully nine times since then, including eight flights by an upgraded "full thrust" version.

SpaceX's eight successful launches this year were its most in any calendar year, and it hopes to complete as many more before the end of the year, possibly including the debut of a heavy-lift Falcon rocket.

The mishap probably means a delay of months to SpaceX's flight manifest, depending on its cause.

The explosion startled the staff at the Titusville (Fla.) Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We were sitting here and all of a sudden it sounded like a sonic boom and the building started to shake,” said Denny Waktins of the chamber. “There were a couple of minor booms after that and then we went outside and saw the smoke plume. It was a well-defined plume, not like a controlled burn.”

Contributing: Wayne T. Price and Rick Neale, Florida Today. Follow James Dean on Twitter: @flatoday_jdean


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