Second stage flaw fingered for fireworks

August 22, 2015 – 07:47 am

SpaceX explosionAnalysisSpaceX's perfect delivery record to the International Space Station ended on Sunday, 139 seconds into the flight of its Falcon 9 rocket. But there are good reasons why Elon's Musketeers will be back on schedule far faster than many are predicting.

The accident itself was a disaster, and a very unfortunate birthday present for Elon Musk, who turned 44 that day. It had been hoped he'd celebrate by seeing the first-ever landing of a Falcon rocket on SpaceX's landing barge Of Course I Still Love You. Instead he got fireworks of a different persuasion.

Here's what we know so far about the accident. The rocket completed static testing and was raised into position loaded up with around 4, 000lbs (1, 814kg) of cargo, including a lot of equipment that was intended to replace material that was lost when Orbital Sciences' commercial resupply rocket blew up last October.

The liftoff went perfectly and the ground crew was getting ready for first stage separation as the rocket reached 44.9 kilometers of altitude and a speed of 4, 733kph, when the upper half appeared to bloom and contact was lost.

At that point, the ground crew commentary went silent, which is to be expected. SpaceX has the same procedures as NASA in the event of an accident – lock the doors, backup the data, get everyone to work, and no speculation until the facts are known.

These procedures were rehearsed and set in stone even before the first Falcon's flight, and they're good scientific practice. Musk himself took to social media to provide the first details that SpaceX was positive about, tweeting that: "There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause."

Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk)

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There are going to be a few sleepless nights at SpaceX in the coming days as engineers and designers go through the sensor data piece by piece. Musk is known for working his staff hard and this problem needs to be sorted out quickly.


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