Space & Innovation

SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Explodes Minutes After Lift-Off

An unmanned SpaceX rocket exploded less than three minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Sunday, in the first major disaster for the fast-charging company headed by Internet tycoon Elon Musk.

An unmanned SpaceX rocket exploded less than three minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Sunday, in the first major disaster for the fast-charging company headed by Internet tycoon Elon Musk.

The accident was the third in less than a year involving US and Russian supply ships bound for the International Space Station, and raised new concerns about the flow of food and gear to the astronauts living in orbit.

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Skies were sunny and clear for the 10:21 am (1421 GMT) launch of the gleaming white Falcon 9 rocket that was meant to propel the Dragon cargo ship on a routine supply mission, the seventh for SpaceX so far.

But two minutes, 19 seconds into the flight, contact was lost. Live television images from SpaceX's webcast and NASA television showed a huge puff of smoke billowing outward for several seconds, then tiny bits of the rocket falling like confetti against a backdrop of blue sky.

"The vehicle has broken up," said NASA commentator George Diller.

SpaceX's live webcast of the launch went silent as the rocket exploded.

Moments later, a SpaceX commentator said the video link from the vehicle had been lost.

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"There was some kind of anomaly during first stage flight," the commentator said, noting that the rocket had ignited its nine Merlin engines and reached supersonic speed.

Later, on Twitter, Musk said the Falcon 9 "experienced a problem shortly before first stage shutdown," referring to the phase of flight before the cargo ship would have been able to separate from the first stage of the rocket and reach orbit.

The problem appeared to be linked to excessive pressure in the liquid oxygen tank, Musk wrote.

"Data suggests counterintuitive cause," said Musk, a lifelong space enthusiast who also heads Tesla Motors.

"That's all we can say with confidence right now."

More details were expected in a NASA press conference scheduled for no earlier than 12:50 pm (1650 GMT).

The loss came as a surprise to many who have followed Musk's California-based company through more than a dozen successful launches, even as competitor Orbital Sciences lost one of its rockets in an explosion in October, and a Russian Progress supply ship was lost after liftoff in April.

"These things do happen, but this was not the best time for this to happen," said Marco Caceres, a rocket industry analyst with the Teal Group.

"The one thing you could count on over the past few years was that the Falcon 9 was going to perform and was going to perform well," he told AFP.

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"In the midst of all this other chaos in the launch industry this was like, the one stable point and now we don't have that," he told AFP.

Caceres said the accident forces SpaceX, which has a billion-dollar-plus contract with NASA for supplying the ISS but is also competing with Boeing to send astronauts there by 2017, to launch again quickly.

"The moment they launch again successfully, this accident starts to fade into history really quickly. The longer they wait to launch again, the more people start talking about, 'Maybe we were too overconfident about SpaceX,'" he said.

The Dragon cargo ship was carrying 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) of gear to the space station, including a large parking space, known as an International Docking Adaptor, designed to make it easier for an array of commercial crew spacecraft to dock at the orbiting lab in the future.

"Very sorry to see @SpaceX launch failure. Serious ramifications for Space Station resupply. Good thing it's international," wrote Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on Twitter.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden said the US space agency was "disappointed" at the loss but that the space station has "sufficient supplies for the next several months."

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A Russian Progress supply ship is scheduled to launch July 3, followed in August by a Japanese HTV flight, Bolden said.

"Orbital ATK, our other commercial cargo partner, is moving ahead with plans for its next launch later this year."

Three men are currently living at the space station. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Scott Kelly began their year-long mission in orbit back in March.

"Sadly failed. Space is hard," Kelly said on Twitter, posting a picture of his view of the Florida coast from space.

Earlier Sunday, station commander, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, 57, set a new world record when he became the person who has officially spent the longest amount of cumulative time in space -- 804 days.

His career includes one trip to the Mir Space Station and four to the ISS.

The launch of the Falcon 9 rocket appeared to be progressing as normal, but at 2 minutes 19 seconds into the flight, a launch anomaly caused the vehicle to break apart.

During the second NASA-contracted SpaceX Dragon cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS) Sunday morning (March 3, 2013), Canadian astronaut, soon-to-be ISS commander and hugely popular orbital Twitter user Chris Hadfield kept tabs on the Dragon berthing. Here are the stunning views he captured during the successful capture. Here, the Dragon capsule is grappled by the station's robotic arm -- an instrument designed and built by MDA Space Missions for the Canadian Space Agency. "Tonight's Finale: A Dragon, snared and tamed by Canadarm2. Saint George ringing in a new era in the silence of space," Hadfield tweeted. Here are some more views shared by Hadfield with the world via his Twitter account, @Cmdr_Hadfield.

The Canadarm2 awaits the arrival of the Dragon capsule. The robotic arm is the primary component of the space station's Mobile Servicing System (MSS) that was installed in 2001. The Canadarm2 provides support to astronauts on board the station -- berthing spacecraft, providing maintenance services and moving equipment around the station's exterior. "Canadarm2, proud builder of the International Space Station, in preparation for the successful grabbing of a Dragon," tweeted Hadfield.

"Dragon comes into view - first sight this morning, sneaking up on us from behind the Progress solar array," tweeted Hadfield, referring to one of the solar panels of the docked Russian Progress cargo vehicle.

"Self-portrait in the Cupola with rising Dragon below, Africa behind."

As the Dragon approached the space station, there were plenty of photo ops for the astronauts. "The Dragon spaceship high over Mount Etna - both spitting fire," said Hadfield as the spacecraft passed over the east coast of Sicily, Italy.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft over the Sahara Desert before space station berthing on March 3, 2013.

"Like a Praying Mantis, Canadarm2 poised to reach out and grab Dragon."

"Success! Canadarm2 holds Dragon by the nose, to drag it up and hook it on to a Station hatch," said Hadfield via his Twitter account when the Dragon was snared at 5:31 am EST Sunday morning.

"Happy crewmember - Dragon securely snared by Canadarm2, ready to be lifted around, hooked into place, and opened up."