Space-X Setback – Dragon Capsule Explodes!

During a series of engine tests of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft this past Saturday, the vehicle experienced what the company has characterized as an “anomaly.” This could be a serous setback!

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Spacecraft completed a pad abort test in May, 2015. This image shows the vehicle’s eight SuperDraco thrusters firing as intended.

Based upon an unauthorized leaked video of the accident, the company was counting down toward a firing of the Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters when the vehicle exploded. SpaceX has not validated the video, but it is consistent with verbal accounts of the failure that have been shared with Ars.

After the accident, large dramatic clouds of orange smoke billowed above “Landing Zone 1,” where SpaceX conducted Saturday’s engine tests. According to one source, the orange plumes were the result of between one and two tons of nitrogen tetroxide—the oxidizer used by Dragon’s SuperDraco engines—burning at the location. After a dramatic weekend, what follows is a summary of what we know, what we don’t know, and where SpaceX goes from here.

What was destroyed?

The Crew Dragon capsule in question is the same one that successfully flew a demonstration mission to the International Space Station in March. The spacecraft was being prepared for a launch abort test this summer. During this test, the Dragon would have launched from Florida on a Falcon 9 booster and then fired its powerful SuperDraco engines to show that the Dragon could pull itself safely away from the rocket in case of a problem with the booster before or during flight.

Now that SpaceX has lost this capsule, it must find a substitute for this launch abort test. It is not clear whether it will fabricate a boilerplate vehicle with a SuperDraco system of eight thrusters, or re-purpose one of the Dragons it has built for crewed flights to the space station. Either way, this is a significant materiel loss for the company.

How did it happen?

We don’t know. According to the leaked video, the anomaly occurred within the final 10 seconds of the countdown, and it is not entirely clear whether the SuperDraco engines had begun to fire. One source indicated that the company has a lot of data about the failure—this was a ground-based test, so the vehicle was heavily instrumented—so theoretically finding the root cause of the accident should be more straightforward than had a problem occurred during a real flight.

The best case scenario, in terms of causing delays for SpaceX, would be that someone mishandled the ground systems equipment. The worst-case scenario is that there is some undiscovered but fundamental design problem in SuperDraco thrusters.

During past accidents, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been fairly forthcoming about the cause of the failures, and we hope for similar transparency with this accident. I would argue that, since this vehicle will eventually carry humans and is funded largely by NASA, transparency is essential to ensuring public confidence in the vehicle and company’s processes. Adapted: Universe Today

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