Tuesday, August 26, 2014

SpaceX rocket self-destructs after detecting an ‘anomaly’


At its test site in Texas, a new SpaceX rocket has self-destructed mid-flight. As far as we’re aware, this marks the first major failure for SpaceX’s commercial space launch program. In a statement, SpaceX says the rocket detected an anomaly and automatically initiated its self-destruct sequence. No one (and no cows) were harmed in the explosion. A commercial Falcon 9 launch, which was scheduled to put AsiaSat 6 into orbit on Tuesday, has been delayed while SpaceX analyzes the data from the failed test rocket.

On August 22, SpaceX performed the first launch of a new three-engine variant of its Grasshopper/F9R test rocket. Grasshopper is a small rocket that allows SpaceX to test its vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) maneuvers on a smaller scale, before using them on the full-scale Falcon 9 rocket to allow for easy recovery and reuse. Previously, Grasshopper had only used a single Merlin rocket engine; for the August 22 test, a new version of the vehicle (called F9R) with three Merlin engines was being used. Presumably this was so SpaceX had a test vehicle that more closely resembled the Falcon 9 (which has nine Merlin engines in its first stage).

If you watch the footage (embedded above) — recorded by KWTX, which had a television crew near the launch site — the new test rocket goes up, turns 90 degrees to horizontal, and then detonates with a rather neat fireball. SpaceX hasn’t said much about the parameters of the test or the explosion, except for the following fairly vague statement:

SpaceX statement, about the August 22 test rocket explosion

In other words, SpaceX was attempting something new and exciting — and it didn’t quite go as planned. If you’re wondering why the rocket self-detonated, it’s probably a simple case of staying in control. It’s much better for the rocket to perform a controlled explosion in the air, than to fall back to the ground and explode uncontrollably. Even worse, the rocket might’ve had enough fuel to crash in a nearby farm or town, injuring or killing people (and cows). This way, all that SpaceX lost was a few million dollars in hardware, and not billions of dollars in damages.

The base of a newer Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle, with a circular arrangement of Merlin 1D engines
The base of a newer Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle, with a circular arrangement of Merlin 1D engines
At this point it’s impossible to say what kind of anomaly was experienced by the rocket — it might’ve been something drastic, like a failed seal, or it could very easily have been something very, very small. In either case, the safest option is to self-destruct first, ask questions later.

Moving forward, SpaceX will be poring through gigabytes of flight telemetry data to work out what went wrong. If we’re lucky, SpaceX might release some awesome footage of the rocket’s explosion, shot by a nearby quadcopter — though I guess that might not make a whole lot of sense from a PR perspective. A commercial Falcon 9 launch, which was scheduled to put AsiaSat 6 into orbit on Tuesday, has been rescheduled to Wednesday due to the failed test.

If you’re wondering what a successful VTVL is meant to look like, watch the video below of a previous Grasshopper/F9R test flight.

While it’s highly unusual for SpaceX to fail, it’s not exactly unexpected. Rockets and space launch vehicles are pretty old-hat by this point — but now that SpaceX is moving into newer, untested territory, some mishaps are to be expected. There’s a reason that no one else has attempted to make a reusable rocket before: It’s hard. If SpaceX wants to create the world’s first reusable space launch system, and crack the cheap, commercial space travel market wide open, there are going to be a few fireballs along the way. As long as it’s just the test launches that explode, there’s absolutely nothing to worry about.

Source: extremetech

The Chief Technomancer
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