SpaceX Scientists Try to Determine Exact Cause of Rocket’s Explosion

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SpaceX scientists are trying to determine the exact cause of Sunday’s explosion of its unmanned Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket, set to carry a cargo ship to the International Space Station on June 28, burst into a fireball two minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The cargo ship was destroyed.

“This was a blow to us. We lost a lot of research equipment on this flight,” said NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. Officials said the cause of the explosion has not been determined. However, early analysis shows there was a problem with the upper-stage engine of the rocket. The same rocket, a 208-foot tall unit, has had 18 successful missions on its record since 2010, officials said. Its missions included multiple cargo runs to the International Space Station for NASA. The work was part of a $2 billion contract that includes 15 flights.

The latest incident in a series of setbacks for SpaceX means that the Falcon 9 rockets will be grounded for several months, while the investigation continues and corrections are made. The mishap on June 28, 2015 followed another botched effort to carry cargo to the space station. An attempt in April 2015 failed when a Russian Progress cargo ship had a problem with its Soyus launcher and did not reach the outpost. This is the third time a resupply mission has failed in recent months.

There have been several other similar incidents occurring in the past year involving the commercial cargo program. A rocket belonging to Orbital Science exploded last October and Cygnus was destroyed in an explosion last year. Russia’s Progress 59 burned up when it went into an uncontrolled spin re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Gerstenmaier said some loss is expected in the program, but NASA never anticipated losing so many crafts in one year. He said that the incidents do not indicate there is negligence or ongoing problems, but only demonstrates the challenges of engineering and of space flights. SpaceX scientists believe they can determine the exact cause of Sunday’s explosion and provide better engineering for future flights.

There are three more cargo missions planned for this summer. Russian flights are set for July 3 and July 22 and a Japanese flight is scheduled for April 16. SpaceX will have another launch attempt in September.

For the three astronauts on the space station, the failed attempts are causing some concern. There are enough supplies to last about four months, officials said. The cargo ship lost Sunday had about two tons of goods, which included foods amounting to around 1,500 pounds. The ship also had clothing, research items and equipment, officials said. Some of that equipment included a water filtration system and a new docking device.

Gerstenmaier said that the crew, which includes two Russians and Scott Kelly of NASA, on the space station, is not in danger and the agency is moving forward with support teams ready to send provisions. He sees no reason that the commercial cargo missions cannot continue as they have in the past. He is confident the crew will be re-supplied before provisions currently on the space station run low.

Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, has been in a tough competition for business with NASA in hopes of launching a GPS III satellite. Its competition is United Launch Alliance, which is the sole launch provider for spy satellites and the military. United Launch Alliance is a partnership venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. It is uncertain how Sunday’s explosion will affect that bid.

SpaceX scientists will continue to work to determine the cause of the explosion on Sunday, June 28, and rectify the problem, officials said. There is no reason to believe that the problems cannot be easily corrected, according to scientists. Officials said they are optimistic about the future of commercial cargo missions and other ongoing projects.

By Melody Dareing
Edited By Ankur Sinha

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Photo Courtesy of Bill Dickenson’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons license