Falcon 9 mishap update: helium tank rupture was part of the accident

SpaceX is far from completing their investigation, but they already have an intriguing piece of information to share with the public.  Although this is not the root cause, they have determined that the helium tank in the upper stage’s liquid oxygen tank ruptured violently, leading to the loss of vehicle.  They don’t yet know why the tank ruptured, however, so the investigation has a lot of work still to do.  This does give them some confidence that it is not related to the last Falcon 9 mishap, which also involved a helium tank.  That one was found to be due to the failure of a strut supporting the helium tank within the upper stage LOX tank; this failure appear to have been in the tank structure itself.  It’s a carbon composite structure with considerable engineering heritage, but there are still many unknowns and SpaceX has to keep working.  All the same, it’s encouraging they continue to share some information with the public during these investigations, and I hope they are able to return to flight in a speedy manner without compromising safety.

The current SpaceX launch backlog for 2016 alone includes:

  • A set of 10 small satellites for the Iridium-Next network, currently sitting in a hangar at Vandenberg AFB.
  • SES-10, originally set to fly from CCAS, might become the LC-39A trailblazing flight
  • Formosat 5 & Sherpa, for Taiwan and a commercial outfit that plans to launch Cubesats from their Sherpa mothership
  • Echostar 23
  • Dragon CRS 10
  • SES 11/Echostar 105
  • Koreasat 5A
  • Iridium Next 11-20

The Falcon Heavy test flight has already been pushed to 2017 for other reasons, joining an already-busy manifest for 2017.  SpaceX’s has been keeping up a punishing launch pace that exceeds any other platform, so this delay is a serious issue for them.  Hopefully having progressed as far as they have already means they will have a solution quickly.  However, this will likely put a damper on efforts to persuade NASA to accept the Full Thrust Falcon 9 for the crewed Dragon, which will have to be fueled minutes before launch, with the crew already on board.

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