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SpaceX’s charge into the final frontier hasn’t been without issue. In September, one of its Falcon 9 rockets burst into flames during fueling. The rocket, and the expensive satellite resting atop it were lost. Since then, investigators from SpaceX, the FAA, NASA and US Air Force along with industry experts have worked long hours trying to figure out exactly what happened.
Shortly after the explosion, SpaceX revealed they were looking into a possible breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank as the cause. The exact cause still eludes investigators, but they are narrowing it “to one of three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank,” according to a recent SpaceX update.
The good news is SpaceX has recreated a COPV failure through helium loading conditions. It looks like SpaceX investigators are on the right track. They just need to nail down the exact reason for September’s explosion.
What’s causing the failure SpaceX recreated? The main issues that can form with helium loading are caused by temperature and pressure of the helium according to SpaceX.
The rest of SpaceX isn’t just sitting on their hands. They want to be back into the air this year if possible. That means their pair of launch sites at Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg Air Force Base are expected to ready.
Here’s what needs to happen for SpaceX to return to space.
Wrap up the investigation
Re-creating a COPV failure through helium loading conditions suggests the investigators are looking in the right area for September’s explosion. But investigators need to know 100% what caused the SpaceX rocket to suddenly burst into flames. Until the investigation is completed, SpaceX missions will remain grounded.
Test, test, test
According to SpaceX, they will resume stage testing in Texas this week. It’s what they call “an important milestone” to getting back into the air.
Fixing the helium loading issue
All indications point to the way SpaceX loads helium as the reason for the September mishap. Besides figuring out the exact cause, developing better helium loading conditions is at the top of SpaceX’s to-do list. Engineers are busy solving that issue as the investigation continues alongside.
Prepping launch sites
SpaceX’s facility at Kennedy Space Center.
As I said above, the rest of SpaceX isn’t just sitting around twiddling their thumbs. If SpaceX wants to launch missions within the next two months, their launch sites need to be ready. “Our launch sites at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, remain on track to be operational in this timeframe,” says the company.
Keeping customers happy
SpaceX hopes to launch again this year. And so do their customers. One of the customers, Iridium, is participating in the investigation of September’s explosion.
“I remain hopeful that they’ll return to launching this year,” says Iridium chief executive Matt Desch according to SpaceNews. “Also, I don’t know if Iridium Next will be SpaceX’s first launch once they return to flight or whether they might schedule a launch from Florida ahead of us. Either way, we’re comfortable with SpaceX’s investigation and the progress they’re making and I assure you that we won’t proceed to launch if we aren’t confident in SpaceX and their investigation outcome.”
Another important customer, NASA, is still contracted with SpaceX for more cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.
SpaceX will get to the bottom of what happened in September. And we’ll see them flying and landing rockets again soon. I’ll keep you posted as SpaceX wraps up its investigation and announces a return to flight.