WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during tests Thursday morning at Cape Canaveral, resulting in the destruction of its payload, the company confirmed.
The incident occurred at around 9:07 a.m. as the rocket was being readied for static fire tests. The Falcon 9 was intended to launch a Spacecom AMOS-6 communications satellite, built by Israeli defense firm Israel Aerospace Industries, on Sept. 3.
"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," the company said in a statement. "Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries."
Later in the day, SpaceX released a statement on Twitter further clarifying that "the anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle."
The company is continuing its investigation into the root cause of the anomaly.
It is possible that during the course of the investigation into the cause of the incident, SpaceX may have to halt further launches — but exactly what this means for future national security space missions is unclear.
Earlier this year, the Elon Musk-led company won a contract to launch an Air Force GPS 3 satellite with the Falcon 9 rocket, but that launch is not scheduled until 2018.
Brian Weeden, a technical advisor for the Secure World foundation, said the explosion will not likely impact national security launches, so long as the investigation does not find any Falcon 9 design flaws.
"At this point, there have been enough Falcon launches that there probably aren’t any design problems with the Falcon rocket, which means that the incident today may have been to do with some kind of operational procedure or even the handling of the materials and fuels," he said. "If that’s the case, then I think there’s less concern about the reliability of the rocket."
Although anomalies are more common during launches, it’s not entirely uncommon for something to trigger an explosion during engine firing tests, said Marco A. Caceres, The Teal Group’s senior analyst and director of space studies.
"I don’t sense that there is a fundamental problem from a design standpoint," he said. "It’s possible that they were refueling or loading something onto the upper stage. You can see on the video that, whatever happened, it happened at the upper stage level. It may have been a fuel leak. It doesn’t take much — a spark — to cause something to blow up."
It took several months for SpaceX to investigate a 2015 Falcon 9 failure and resume launch activity, but Caceres anticipated a much quicker turnaround in this investigation — days or weeks, not months.
But even a short investigation period could delay one of the nine Falcon 9 commercial launches scheduled before the end of this year, both Carerces and Weeden indicated.
In the military space arena, SpaceX could face criticism from United Launch alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that is SpaceX’s primary competitor for national security launches. ULA could use the incident to reinforce its own reliability and operational experience, but it’s likely that SpaceX could overcome those objections, Weeden said.
During the 2015 Space Symposium, Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Air Force Space Command, acknowledged that the service needs to grapple with how it would handle failed launches and any industrial base issues stemming from such incidents.
"If something goes wrong, what do you have to do to return to fly in this environment and who makes that decision? Because I'm not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don't know is going to work," Hyten said last year. "And if that's the case, then that company, which is now on a very busy launch schedule, is now down. How do they stay in business with the other competitor now launching and launching?"
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.