After a largely quiet 14-month stretch without any issue, a SpaceX rocket engine exploded one week ago during a test run at the company’s McGregor, Texas, facility. This was confirmed by SpaceX on Wednesday, with the company adding that it has launched an investigation to get to the bottom of the explosion.
According to a report from the Washington Post, there were no injuries suffered as a result of Saturday’s incident, as a next-generation Merlin engine used in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blew up during a so-called “qualification test.” There has been no reason specified as of this writing to explain the mishap, but the company is reportedly conducting a “thorough and fully transparent” investigation to determine the exact cause of the explosion.
As clarified by a report from Ars Technica, the engine that was lost during the past weekend’s test was an experimental unit being developed for the Falcon 9 rocket’s Block 5 version. All of the remaining Falcon 9 launches for the current year through the first few months of 2018 feature the rocket’s Block 4 version, which makes use of an older Merlin engine.
The explosion reportedly took place right before the engine was lit, and while details are still scant pending investigation, Ars Technica wrote that there was “something” that caused the rocket engine’s fluids to ignite during the LOX drop, or liquid oxygen drop, procedure. This is a procedure carried out in order to test if a rocket engine has any leaks on it.
Sunday’s explosion marks the first untoward incident involving a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 14 months. As BGR noted, SpaceX launched the first of multiple attempts to land a rocket in January 2015. That first attempt ended in a crash-landing onto a rocket barge and was followed by more failed attempts in April and June of that year. But it was the September 2016 SpaceX rocket explosion that arguably earned Elon Musk’s space travel company the most press, with the rocket blowing up while being fueled on the launchpad.
After two months of investigations, Musk told CNBC that his company was able to figure out the rather surprising and unusual reason why SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploded in September of last year. According to Musk, this was due to super-cold oxygen interacting with carbon fiber composites found in the fuel tank.
Fortunately, the aforementioned event was followed up by a longer string of SpaceX successes. The Washington Post wrote that the company had 16 successful launches in 2017 alone, which allowed it to tie its top rival, the United States Launch Alliance, while doubling SpaceX’s previous record for the most number of launches in one year. And while the new rocket explosion might sound like a setback for Elon Musk and his company, none of these accidents have resulted in any human injuries so far.
Primarily used to fly commercial satellites and deposit cargo onto the International Space Station for NASA, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to be able to send astronauts to outer space “as early as next year.” At least three more Falcon 9 launches are expected before the end of the year, including next week’s national security mission from the Kennedy Space Center.
As for the SpaceX rocket engine that exploded during Sunday’s Falcon 9 test launch, a spokesman told the Washington Post that testing on the Merlin engine will temporarily be on hold as the company investigates the reason behind its explosion. Preparation for operational engines will resume in “a few days” upon the repair of their testing stand, though no specific timeline was given.
[Featured Image by Bill Ingalls/Getty Images]