- Parabolic Arc
- June 2, 2023
SpaceX Launch Pad Explanomaly is a Real Head Scratcher
SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, are scratching their heads over how the company managed to destroy a Falcon 9 launch and the Amos-6 communications satellite during routine propellant loading last week.
And it’s little wonder. There’s not a lot of precedent for this type of accident. The last time a launch provider had a failure like this one was more than half a century ago when the industry was in its infancy.
Still working on the Falcon fireball investigation. Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 9, 2016
Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off. May come from rocket or something else.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 9, 2016
If you have audio, photos or videos of our anomaly last week, please send to [email protected] Material may be useful for investigation
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 9, 2016
73 responses to “SpaceX Launch Pad Explanomaly is a Real Head Scratcher”
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“Explanomaly” Is why I love this blog. LOL.
Seconded. Doug, could you please set up a Patreon account to keep this going ?
I’m guessing that the 3000+ channels of telemetry aren’t giving a good enough look into the cause but only what came after.
I wonder why SpaceX wasn’t running high speed (~120fps, not mega frame rates) during the whole evolution. The published video suggests a few possibilities, but isn’t fast enough to capture exactly where the fire started. It bloomed too fast. I was working on a rocket when we had a hard start (boom) and there was one frame with a shock wave in it (30fps). The frame before was normal and the frame after was a disassembled rocket motor (or a few bits anyway).
It’s tempting to guess that a hydrocarbon grease or oil was used at an umbilical connection that was saturated with Oxygen. Paint that was still wet from being touched up? It could still be something that happened internally and burst quickly through a fitting.
I heard a couple of metallic “groaning” sounds and the bang about 5-7 seconds before the fire first erupted. I don’t have anyway of telling where the came from. It could have been something completely unrelated. A second audio source might determine if it was from the pad area.
I’m wondering how many channels of telemetry do they have on every technician that works on launch operations.
My question is: who else works with densified LOX? The entire industry (chemical industry) has experience with oxygen-clean parts, but that usually assumes gaseous oxygen or liquid oxygen at/near the boiling point. Does Air Liquide or Praxair or ANYBODY else work with super-chilled LOX? Has SpaceX departed from doing engineering “development” to doing original “science”?
The Russian (Soviets) used super-cooled LOX in ICBMs and for the N-1. Its not new, its just not used here.
So you’re saying it was either used unsuccessfully (N-1) or in an application where procedures would be state secrets, but NEVER in western industrial applications? Are there special handling requirements for cold LOX? Do funny things happen to common LOX-compatible materials at those temperatures?
Weird things happen at specific combinations of conditions. I’m thinking of red plague, purple plague, white plague, etc. WEIRD stuff can happen that isn’t predicted by theory and is only learned about by practical experience – it can make a great competitive advantage if you can master them. If chilled LOX is one of those cases…
Its not. The N-1 was unsuccessful because of its engine configuration, not the propellants chosen. Engineering isn’t theoretical. There are LOTS of very smart people at SpaceX. It is highly unlikely that they would do something “weird”. Aliuns blowing up that Falcon is more likely.
James, so you’re saying that the Russians have so much experience with chilled LOX and were so happy with its performance, that they aren’t using it on ANY modern program? I don’t think we have enough evidence to remove it from the investigation’s fault tree.
I donno. Probably for the same reason the US didn’t use it, no worth the hassle when the tax payers can just buy a bigger rocket instead.
And true. However I know of no literature that claims that supercooled LOX is any more hazardous than “warm” LOX.
Russia still uses sucbooled LOX for the Soyuz 2-1v, which is initially using refurbished NK-33 engines. We did too, for a while, with the AJ-26 used on the Antares.
Densified LOX was used in the X-15 program, but that was more because the atmospheric pressure decreased as the X-15 was brought to launch altitude, thus decreasing the boiling point of the LOX. The volume of the LOX in the X-15’s LOX tank would decrease, and so the B-52 mothercraft carried additional LOX to top off the X-15 before launch.
Densified LOX was also intended to be used on the X-33 vehicle and most of the modern work in the US was a result of that.
Nice to see you say this – the implication of densification as a factor was an immediate thought of mine – though my chasm of ignorance on the subject makes it difficult to build a decent argument. Surely though, someone in the SpaceX organisation must know that densified LOX is rather unusual. Despite my admittedly ignorance, for now I’m gonna bet on the unexpected contaminant theory.
If you want an interesting read, find a PDF of “Taming Liquid Hydrogen: The Centaur Upper Stage”. It’s very interesting. We had procedures to deal with liquid oxygen, it freezes water out of the air. But liquid hydrogen FREEZES THE AIR! Air would liquify and pool on the ground as liquid nitrogen and oxygen and then cause these explosions.
If chilled LOX isn’t being used in any other (real) industry (no, we don’t do anything at industrial scale in the spaceflight business), I’m concerned SpaceX may be doing original research at this point. And that could get VERY expensive.
But where is the fuel? Some unconstrained combustible contaminate that would have gone unnoticed by the crew is just going to quickly flare and go out. And the initial flare is from at least a low-explosive blast. From just LOX and some containment, even something like an oil soaked shirt, I doubt would produce enough shock to burst the 2nd stage tanks. Even if it were inside the tank, I think it would simply blowout the pressure relief valves and be quenched/exhausted quickly.
Could the lithium aluminum of the tank skin have somehow gotten ignited by the DLOX? With a catalyst (getting into conspiracies…)?
And this was just a routine fueling and test fire. I doubt they even do hi-speed video of them anymore.
To make an obvious point, in the presence of LOX, EVERYTHING is a fuel.
Lithium and aluminum will burn in a pure Oxygen environment. If you heat up a diamond and drop it in liquid Oxygen, it will burn. The initial fire doesn’t have to burst the second stage tanks. They are fueling so there are open conduits for the LOX to go in and vapor to be released.
There was just a story published in the LA area about a Titanium golf club sparking a brush fire. The golfer was in the ruff and the club probably glanced off of a rock causing a hot spark.
Thinking along the lines of there being a catalyst is a good way to come up with a plausible explanation. Chain reactions are much more common than incidents with a single failure. Most places try to keep things like greasy rags disposed of properly. A quick hot fire can get another material burning and so on until a whole rocket is burning. It doesn’t take long either.
Getting a charcoal BBQ started with LOX is exciting. I’m sure there is a video on Youtube.
Careful. Remember that you don’t actually have simultaneous sound/vision; that was tweaked afterwards to match the sound to the explosion.
The camera was about 4km away from the launch site, IIRC, and there were many seconds delay between the explosion and the arrival of the sound.
However, the sound would have travelled faster through the ground, arriving (distorted and muffled) before the air-borne sound.
(Indeed, the speed of sound through the ground is so fast, it would only have 1/2-3/4s delay over that distance, compared to the >10s delay through the air. Hence that rumble-bang sound wouldn’t have been from the initial explosion, but from the much louder deflagration of the first stage several seconds later (which is violent enough to make the camera shake when the air-borne sound arrives.))
I’m very aware of the speed of sound through all sorts of materials. I sync’d the sound and picture myself and I am confident that I have it very close. What is needed is another sound recording from different location to find out where the anomalous noises originated.
I thought I heard someone say that perhaps the TEL might have moved. Maybe some LOX made some metal brittle? Could be any number of things.
I’d like to see several second stages all filled and evacuated with LOX through several cycles–so see if anything bursts.
Contrary to what Cowing thinks, all the old Space friends I have take no delight in this set-back for new-space. On the other hand, if this were SLS–a lot of Cowings friends would be cheering.
No-one would cheer over the loss of an SLS vehicle. I sure as hell wouldn’t, no matter how critical I am of SLS.
Oh, yes you would.
Shows how little you know.
I have read dozens of your malicious death-to-SLS trashy comments. That is what I know. And everyone else knows it also. Shows how little you know about yourself.
Less of the hyperbole please. Stating SLS is junk is a perfectly valid comment. If you want to hold the view that SpaceX and the Falcon 9 are garbage then that’s your own prerogative. Get off that high horse of yours.
“SpaceX and the Falcon 9 are garbage”
Not hyperbole. Explosive proof for all to see.
Then you also believe the Shuttle was “garbage”? SpaceX have never killed anyone, unlike the Shuttle (and Apollo) program.
I am pretty sure many space cadets here and on other fora would have their Schadenfreude – not only the church of Elon Musk is strong but also there are many other people willing to enforce their religious views like “private is good, public is bad”.
Personally I have mixed feelings: I have some admiration for Old Stuff and I am somewhat rooting for Soyuz to observe how long this tech grounded in 60’s Korolev Bureau can carry on. 😀 I even lived at the street formerly named after the first victim of Soyuz, V. Komarov.
OTOH I do realize that SpaceX failures harm U.S. pride (and U.S. citizens are the largest crowd on English language websites) and they delay us all as the humanity from the spaceflight progress.
If I can give some comfort, it is just a glitch which probably will not have a huge effect in the long run. What will hopefully happen will be employing more people by SpaceX and letting them work less hours per week to reduce risks.
Remember the discussions on SpaceX plans to ramp up production and operations? I was one of these few people worrying that the company will have problems to deliver. Ramping up requires much more than a strong will of Musk and a presentation by Shotwell. It requires onboarding hundreds of people, training them, keeping them and winning their dedication to work, paranoically look for problems and solving them on the go.
According to the news on Parabolicarc, these people were not particularly well compensated or treated. What I am really hoping is that these people – actually responsible for these rockets flying – will get a long deserved boost.
It will help us all in the long run and let us hopefully enjoying some great SpaceX vs Blue Origin vs Arianespace vs … competition in 2020s!
What is obvious but no one has the guts to say is that after blowing up twice NASA is unlikely to put astronauts at risk with this vehicle.
SpaceX is out of the human space flight business. They may continue launching satellites but they might as well junk their dragon tooling.
And your evidence for this statement is ???
Haters gotta hate.
That would be you Mr. hater brander.
Blowing up twice. Can you read?
How soon we forget… the proportion of successes so far is better than the Ariane first was. Not to mention that the Dragon V.2 would have escaped the fireball.
Well, to be fair:
1) “The proportion of successes” is some bullshit statistics and not true anymore – Ariane 5 ECA had ONE failure in its initial start and 56 consecutive successes afterwards; Falcon 9 FT just got a failure in its 8th mission)
2) Ariane does not do human spaceflight (albeit it is not due to safety but mostly lack of business case and AFAIR engineering = R&D costs required to suppress vibrations)
3) incidents with Ariane are very well understood, documented and mitigated. Here however we are still observing some wild ride.
Like it or not, SpaceX process is not matured. It gives more space for development but obviously it is not fully stable.
Hopefully SpaceX will be able to make a stable branch of its rocketry in a few years. Unfortunately, now it has been proven again that the fast growth in terms of operations has its costs.
Shuttle blew up twice and the people in it died and the shuttle kept flying. People died in Apollo. Kept flying even after the second accident.
And most likely the crew would have survived this.
That is why those emergency escape rockets are built in.
The Shuttle was retired because it blew up twice and that was how SpaceX got the money to build their “cheap taxi” to the ISS. You are being ridiculous. SpaceX has failed by any measure to make good on their promises. They have failed and NASA would be crazy to risk astronauts on that vehicle now.
Stop babbling like a 12 year old who had his toys taken away.
They could always launch Dragon on the Atlas V. Cygnus rode on it, so why not a Dragon?
Because SpaceX is a space launch company at this point in history. Launching their own payload on a competitor’s booster would be… not a sound business decision.
Might not have a choice though. Falcon 9 could be grounded for a long time and even then NASA might decided against crewed missions on that rocket for a long time after that. So it’s either Atlas V or no crewed Dragon missions at all.
Even with a worst case delay of 12 months, SX can still beat Boeing in almost all of the milestones. But that isn’t even a race. NASA is funding the development of two separate crew LEO spacecraft. That is the goal. It is not a competition.
The risk to SX is the damage a grounding does to their commercial launch business, which they need to fund projects like F-H and the MCT.
Worst case is that NASA refuses to let astronauts fly on a Falcon 9 until they are certain it is safe, which potentially could take much longer than 12 months. NASA won’t fund a capsule that can’t fly, so if there’s no Dragon on a Atlas V, then Conway Costigan might be right in saying there will not be any SpaceX manned launches for the foreseeable future.
NASA won’t fund a capsule that can’t fly, s
There’s a whole menagerie of things NASA funded that can’t or won’t fly. The Orion is just latest on the list of projects that will likely get cancelled before acquiring a real flight history. Venturestar, NASP, and many others from the second half of NASAs’ history were stopped well before reaching the flight record Falcon9 has now.
“The Orion is just latest on the list of projects that will likely get cancelled-“
Still dreaming even after all those dreams just went up in a fireball. SLS is going to fly and the entire planet is going to give the U.S. a standing ovation while the NewSpace fanboys are wailing and gnashing their teeth.
Dragon doesn’t fly under a fairing. It would take months of wind tunnel testing just to verify if it would fly stably and they’d probably run into shock wave issues like they are currently working with on the CST-100 / Starliner.
I rewatched the videos, and yeah, there’s a bit of a “bang” a few seconds before the actual conflagration.
Interestingly enough, the sound is almost like an old fridge that’s undergoing thermal expansion or contraction. This might be noise of a part breaking as it’s either expanding or contracting too quickly. That or through multiple launches, this effect may have caused a part to fail in the fueling system or strongback.
If not that, It could also be cavitation in either RP1 or LOX (cryogenic cavitation) fuel systems/lines. Possibly a pump failing or a valve that partially sheared during the fueling operations. This would mean that the damage would be done in an area outside the actual rocket, and possibly not fully covered by telemetry systems. Plus the time the detritus would advance through the fueling system, would account for the time span between the initial bang and the conflagration.
I think it is a leak. It starts at :48. The LOX vent is on the far side near the fairing which I found in a webcast launch video. The vapor is coming from the strongback and wind is blowing it left in front of the rocket. If it was coming from the vent the vapor would be behind. It looks like there is no LOX in the tank. There is never any vapor coming from the vent in the video. There is no vapor coming from the 2nd. stage as there is from the sides of 1st. stage. Maybe the vapor is coming from a relief valve there that I do not know about. Start the video,hit pause, use the slider to move. Put the pointer on the red dot. Move it slightly and it is easier to look at a still frame. I think the flex fill pipe failed. SpaceX copied Zenit. They did not have many launches. SpaceX found the number of retracts that can be done. The flexible pipe loops down then extends out when the strong-back is retracted. Too many cycles. I think SpaceX should go to a US system such as Antares. Horizontal assembly. Erect the rocket near a fixed tower. Run straight pipes for LOX and Kerosene. This is the way US has always done it. If that is a leak, it is bad even if it did not cause the explosion.
I do not think Dragon could abort fast enough. Unless they saw the leak and aborted. The capsule would not be pointed straight up long enough for someone dor the computer to push the abort button. It would shoot sideways or down into the ground. The fairing did survive and set there for a second or so though.
I checked the Turkman launch webcast. When the strongback retracted the LOX lines are much lower and not in the area of the vapor. So not lines. There is a vent near that area, but it only vents for a second. It does not look like vapor from anything cold. I did not see anything in that webcast that looked like this condensation. Must be nothing since it is obvious.
Just watch Scott Manley’s video about the incident, in the end he does a video composition of the exploding Falcon 9 combined with the Dragon Pad Abort Test video.
Spoiler: Dragon would have escaped easily, even when abort is only triggered at the moment of the explosion.
Spoiler: I doubt there will be any dragons escaping now. Nobody is going to sign off on human beings actually riding a falcon after it has blown up twice.
if you find flying crew on the falcon 9 dangerous then nasa has done shorter sighted seemingly more dangerous things in the past. for example running with a pure oxygen cabin atmosphere until the shuttle, flying the shuttle (with no launch escape system, brittle ceramic heat tiles, an aluminum body structure, flake happy insulation foam) the mercury program (all of it), still thinking solids and crew are a good mix I could go on, but the point is no ones going to blacklist a rocket for only blowing up twice.
“-no ones going to blacklist a rocket for only blowing up twice.”
SpaceX will never fly anyone now- you and the rest of the fanboys just don’t get it. Cheap did not work. Denial is a common response but it does not change the reality.
When has space ever been about common sense? when has direction in space ever not been dictated by fanboys?
What made the shuttle fly as illogical of a bird as it was? Fanboys wishing for a plane shaped spaceship of thier sci fi dreams since the very beginning.
What set a nazi war criminal free to put a man on the moon at the expense of the rest of the space program? Fanboys wanting to show up the russians one way or another.
Why do we rely so much on liquid hydrogen or cryogenics in general despite its difficult handling characteristics, high cost, and low density? Some fanboys sold us on the idea with promises of high efficiency.
What put the first satellite and man in space despite limited apparent utility at the time? Some russian fanboy who knew how to sweet talk military officials.
The history of spaceflight is littered with ambitious and sometimes self sabotaging fanboys pushing for thier vision of the future no matter how dumb or short sighted we may see thier political wheeling and dealing in hindsight. Don’t underestimate fanboys they can make some scarily stupid and dangerous things happen.
“Don’t underestimate fanboys-“
A bunch of fools that I never waste time thinking about. Your blathering nonsense is proof of that. Why do “we” rely on liquid hydrogen…..c’mon. SpaceX does not use it because the turbopumps are several times more expensive. They have gone cheap on everything and some of us are not surprised at all that cheap blows up.
What about all those expensive rockets that blew up before SpaceX came around? I completely forgot that more and more gub’mint money makes things safe, which is why we never lost a gub’mint owned rocket, ain’t that right Gary?
Not talking about “before SpaceX.”
And because it blew up twice you don’t want to talk about now.
Funny how that works.
Of course you’re not talking about before SpaceX, if you were then your nonsense would be even more obvious when you consider how difficult space launch has been for everyone. You only us facts that allow you to tear down SpaceX and convientently forget the rest of space history.
I’m happy to talk about the recent failures, and have been with many people on various sites and even so much as to consider the possibilities of SpaceX customer base losing faith and jumping ship leaving them with only the low cost, low mass, high volume constellation end of the satellite market. So long as we stick to facts and have a reasonable discussion about the events and possible outcomes. But I know you, you’re only interested in predicting SpaceX eminent demise so reasonable discussion is not possible here, good bye
Goodbye 🙂 Block
“Fanboys wishing for a plane shaped spaceship”
Well, plane shaped spaceship that flew more like a brick than a plane
“Some fanboys sold us on the idea with promises of high efficiency”
And lower cost, that worked out well
Some times it works (like cryogenics) some times it doesn’t (like the shuttle) my point is the engineers, scientists, and politicians that steer space exploration are all essentially enthusiastic fanboys and direction comes from essentially their collective force of will rather than any sort of logic like what conways is trying to use to say the falcon 9 can’t be man rated if it fails twice.
Yeah I get you’re point, but I will say LH2 high Isp is usually completely outweighed by density specific impulse except on second stages but the cost of LH2 in any system has never panned out. Maybe (hopefully) BO will prove me wrong
Conway/Gary also believe that STS hardware is the best man rated hardware out there, yet the solids eliminate any in flight abort capability
Lower cost worked out the same for SpaceX.
There is no cheap.
There he is! Gary I missed you and your spouting of utter nonsense
Again where is the fuel? Where is the ignition source? The failure of the strongback’s LOX line would have just started spewing clouds of condensate fog all around and the loss of pressure would have registered on sensors. And there was nothing (that should have been) there that could provoke a reaction energetic enough to bust open the RP2 tank that quickly.
“The capsule would not be pointed straight up long enough for someone dor the computer to push the abort button.”
So the vertical rocket and capsule that sat like that for a couple hours are not vertical long enough? Please tell me how you came to this conclusion.
” It would shoot sideways or down into the ground.”
You mean to tell me the capsule with thousands of pounds of thrust and engines that can independently throttle to control attitude is incapable of correcting it’s flight path?
Just thought of something that maybe someone knows.
Why were they fueling the second stage for a static fire of the first? Why not just go to flight pressure “dry” with helium? Mass vibration damping? Testing the 2nd stage’s tank integrity?
Making sure everything works for the launch. Everything did not.
The static fire is also a wet dress rehersal. They do everything they would do in a normal launch, except for releasing the hold-down clamps. That means prepping the 2nd stage for launch, as well as the booster stage.
Tory Bruno said after the accident that Atlas V and OSIRIS-REx was fine. It was true, but it seems to have been a very near thing. A much more dramatic reality than he let on.
Only because they cut services to all of the North end LCs without thinking of the effects.
Yeah, the SpaceX rocket exploding had nothing to do with it.