SpaceX concludes accident investigation, to start launching rockets again

Janis ColeJan 03, 2017

Investigators believe that liquid oxygen pooled here and was trapped when the COPVs were pressurized, making it more likely for friction to ignite the trapped oxygen.

SpaceX was forced to ground all of its vehicles after the accident, which happened in Cape Canaveral, Florida on the morning of September 1st. The research team discovered that there was trouble with the pressure vessel inside the tank responsible for the storage of liquid oxygen. It seems that the materials used for these helium pressure vessels may have had a bad reaction with the oxygen in the tank.

An explosion at the launch site of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is shown in Cape Canaveral Fla. on Sept. 1 2016
SpaceX says failure of helium storage tank caused September rocket explosion

The first 10 satellites for Iridium's next-generation mobile voice and data relay network had been fueled, joined with their deployment module and encapsulated inside the clamshell-like nose cone of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster, said the company. According to declarations from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, this was one of the hardest challenges the company has faced since its foundation.

The company said its accident investigation team - made up of officials from SpaceX, NASA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration and industry experts - found "buckles", or valleys, in the vessels' inner liners.

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Oxygen accumulated between the COPV liner and its overwrap, and something - friction or a breaking fibre - sparked to cause the explosion. However, the company has also been dogged by mishaps, such as this fall's explosion. For instance, the company announced it will be "changing the COPV configuration to allow warmer temperature helium to be loaded, as well as returning helium loading operations to a prior flight proven configuration based on operations used in over 700 successful COPV loads".

A long-term fix will involve design changes to prevent buckles altogether, which will allow for faster loading operations. It's still unclear exactly what caused the buckling in the first place.

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The explosion was a major setback for SpaceX, which has a significant backlog of commercial satellite launches.

Musk's company SpaceX will put 10 small probes into orbit for satellite operator Iridium Sunday. Its next launch payload, a fleet of Iridium NEXT communications satellites, is scheduled to blast off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on January 8th.

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"While there is fairly good confidence that an atmospheric river heavy rainfall event will occur somewhere in Central or Southern California this weekend, there are still some uncertainties in the duration, location, and magnitude of this heavy rain event", the National Weather Service said. Both companies hoped that this mission could start on December 16, but because the FAA didn't approve SpaceX to launch any more missions as the investigation was in process, the launching was delayed.

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