SpaceX to resume rocket launches this month

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from launch complex 40 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. in April 2016. The tentative blastoff date for the Falcon 9 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base is subject to results of testing later this week, officials said. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
SpaceX is ready to resume liftoffs after finishing its investigation into the spectacular explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket in September.

The company plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket on January 8 from Vandenberg Air Force Base outside of Los Angeles, boosting 10 Iridium Next communications satellites into orbit. The launch date, though, is contingent upon Federal Aviation Administration approval, according to satellite manufacturer Iridium.

The agency said it's reviewing SpaceX's investigation report but hasn't yet issued a license for a launch in January.

"The FAA has received the mishap investigation report from SpaceX and it is under review," said an FAA spokeswoman in an emailed statement. "The FAA continues to work closely with SpaceX as they conduct the investigation and prepare for future Falcon 9 launches, in compliance with all applicable regulations and license requirements."

SpaceX didn't respond to a request for comment.

SpaceX launches have been suspended since September 1, after a prelaunch test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida failed in a massive explosion. The rocket and its $195 million payload were destroyed, causing heavy damage to Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX has been investigating the rocket failure with several federal agencies and believes the explosion was triggered by a problem in the Falcon 9's fueling system.

The investigation team "identified several credible causes" for the system failure, SpaceX said in an update posted to its site Monday, and the company said it has put fixes in place to "address all credible causes and focus on changes which avoid the conditions that led to these credible causes."

It's unclear when SpaceX plans to resume launches in Cape Canaveral. Instead, the company reportedly plans to repurpose a space shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center for its next Falcon 9 flight from Florida. The first SpaceX launch from Kennedy will be a commercial mission, CBS News reported, with a delivery to the International Space Station expected to come sometime after that commercial launch.

SpaceX Launches Set to Resume in January

Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. said it plans to resume rocket launches on Jan. 8, using revised operational practices developed in response to a fiery accident that occurred during routine ground preparations last fall.

The tentative blastoff date for the Falcon 9 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base is subject to results of testing later this week, industry officials said, and still could change.

But if everything checks out, Iridium Communications Inc., which has been eagerly waiting to get the first 10 of its next-generation communications satellites into orbit since the September 2016 fireball, can anticipate a launch next Sunday morning.

SpaceX, as the closely held Southern California company is called, previously said the explosion on the launchpad, which destroyed the rocket and a single commercial satellite, was the result of problematic fueling procedures rather than a design or manufacturing flaw.

About eight minutes before a scheduled test firing, according to the company, a pressurized helium bottle inside the rocket’s second stage ruptured, leading to a nearly instantaneous explosion.

Investigators have determined that a complex interplay of variables during fueling, including temperature and pressure, caused a breach in the helium vessel that resulted in ignition.

In its latest statement, SpaceX said the extensive investigation concluded the accident “was likely due to accumulation of oxygen” between the vessel’s aluminum liner and what is called the composite overwrap. The company said testing revealed that supercooled fuel can pool in “a void or buckle in the liner,” subsequently breaking carbon fibers or creating an ignition source.

But the statement also highlighted the complex, somewhat tentative nature of the detailed conclusions. SpaceX noted that in the end, investigators “identified several credible causes” for the failure of the helium container, and that “corrective actions address all credible causes.”

The helium container, immersed in a larger tank containing liquid oxygen propellant, is used to pressurize the fuel tank in flight. As oxygen flows out of the tank during ascent, helium fills the empty spaces.

For the short term, the company plans to load helium into the rocket at a slower pace than previously, and it said the temperature of the helium will be higher than it was the day of the 2016 accident. In the long term, however, SpaceX said it intends to implement design changes to prevent such buckling altogether, “which will allow for faster [fuel] loading operations.”

The statement is notable because it indicates SpaceX intends to stick with plans to fuel its future manned rockets with supercooled oxygen and helium, while astronauts already would be strapped into capsules stacked on top. Such novel fueling procedures have been shunned by U.S. and foreign boosters for decades as potentially too dangerous in case something sparks an explosion before blastoff. The practice also has been challenged twice in the past year on safety grounds by a NASA advisory panel of outside experts.

But Monday’s investigative update, posted on the company’s website, suggests SpaceX is sticking with the general concept, which is primarily aimed at speeding up processing of boosters for launch. Expected design changes, though, are likely to be implemented before the first Falcon 9 is slated to lift off with astronauts in 2018 or later.

Mr. Musk, SpaceX’s founder, chairman and chief executive, previously said the explosion prompted the most challenging investigation in the company’s 14-year history.

He also has said that fueling practices involving supercooled fuel can result in the formation of solid oxygen, which can interact with layers of carbon-fiber wrapped around helium vessels and lead to ignition.

Monday’s statement confirmed that the helium being loaded last September was “cold enough to create solid oxygen, which exacerbates the possibility of oxygen being trapped” between layers of the helium vessel, creating an ignition source. SpaceX also said part of the operational changes entail returning to “flight proven” fueling procedures that have been used successfully hundreds of times over the years.

SpaceX has been heading up the accident probe, with cooperation from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Air Force and other government and industry experts. The company is responsible for determining the cause of the explosion, while the FAA has authority to accept the final report and issue a launch license.

An FAA spokesman wasn’t immediately available for comment.

The Falcon 9’s return to flight has slipped from mid-November to mid-December to early January, as investigators wrapped up their probe and continued to assess a number of specific variables that may have caused the explosion.

The impending mission carries huge stakes for both SpaceX and Iridium. Mr. Musk’s company, which has a roughly a $10 billion backlog of launch contracts, seeks to show commercial and U.S. government customers it can bounce back and speed up its launch tempo.

SpaceX suffered an earlier rocket explosion, 14 months prior to the 2016 accident, when a Falcon 9 broke apart shortly after launch carrying cargo destined for the international space station. The company determined the 2015 accident was caused by the rupture of a substandard metal piece supporting a pressurized helium vessel.

The initial accident prompted SpaceX to revise its quality-control procedures, step up testing of subcontractor parts and reassess some broader safety practices.

Satellite-services provider Iridium seeks to allay investor concerns about the fate of its multibillion-dollar constellation of replacement spacecraft. Last month, Iridium released a statement indicating “we remain as confident as ever” in SpaceX’s “ability to safely deliver our satellites into low-Earth orbit.”

Iridium, which supplies voice and data services world-wide, is relying on an aging satellite fleet operating without adequate in-orbit spares. By early 2018, the company expects six additional Falcon 9 launches carrying 60 more of its satellites.

Airlines and air-traffic control organizations also are closely monitoring the launch schedule because Iridium’s new satellite fleet includes navigation and tracking technology designed to help track aircraft in regions lacking ground-based radar coverage.

SpaceX discovers source of rocket explosion, plans new launch

LOS ANGELES –  SpaceX plans to resume flights as early as next week after finding the cause of an explosion that destroyed a rocket and satellite on a Florida launch pad in September.

The Hawthorne, California-based company is aiming for a Sunday, Jan. 8, flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday. The launch still needs approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The company said its investigation of the Sept. 1 explosion found that a tank failed within the larger, second-stage liquid oxygen tank.

SpaceX plans to launch 10 satellites for Iridium Communications Inc. on a Falcon 9 rocket. The satellites will be used to provide mobile communications on land, sea and air.

Iridium says it in a tweet that it is pleased with the SpaceX's announcement and target launch date.

SpaceX had said it expected to return to flight as soon as November. But that anticipated launch date slipped back to December, and then January.

"Clearly, they're being extra cautious," said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for the Teal Group. "SpaceX usually pushes ahead a lot faster. So it seems like they're not rushing ahead at this point, which is a good thing."

The explosion at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station destroyed a satellite that was to be managed by Israeli satellite operator Spacecom and was also to help Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg bring high-speed internet access to remote parts of Africa.

SpaceX said Monday that it pored through 3,000 channels of video and telemetry data that spanned just 93 milliseconds from the first sign of trouble to the explosion.

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