Nearly two months after a Sept. 1 crash on the launch pad, SpaceX says it is nearing completion of its investigation. While the company has not yet determined the “exact cause” of the accident that occurred during a static fire test just before the planned launch of a communications satellite, the investigation has reached an “advanced stage”.
Shortly after the fiery incident, the company focused on a rupture in the liquid oxygen tank cryogenic helium system of the rocket’s upper stage. “Attention has continued to narrow to one of three composite wrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) in the LOX tank,” the company stated in an update released Friday afternoon. “Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can completely recreate a COPV failure through helium loading conditions. These conditions are primarily affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.”
SpaceX plans to continue work to determine the exact cause of the accident and to improve the way helium is loaded onto the rocket to prevent a recurrence. The company also plans to resume testing Falcon 9 rocket stages at its facility in McGregor, Texas, soon. By taking this step in early November, SpaceX claims it is on track to resume flight operations of its Falcon 9 rocket before the end of 2016.
According to company founder Elon Musk, this accident has turned out to be “the most difficult and complex failure we’ve ever had in 14 years.” This is because the outage occurred in a very short period of time, with only 93 milliseconds elapsing between the first sign of an anomaly and data loss. The lack of a definitive cause has led to all sorts of wild theories, including a sniper fire from a competitor’s facilities in Cape Canaveral. To date, those ideas have been largely debunked.
The fact that the cause of the Sept. 1 failure was likely due to helium-handling problems, rather than a design problem with the rocket itself, may give the company and its customers confidence to deliver the flight within just a few months of resume the accident. During the incident, SpaceX lost its entire Falcon 9 rocket, as well as the AMOS-6 satellite payload, which was already attached to the launch vehicle.