SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that the company could make rocket launches by mid-December.

Launches of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets were suspended following an explosion in September. Musk says that engineers have worked out why the rocket exploded, writes Brooke James for Science World Report.

SpaceX
Photo by SpaceX-Imagery (Pixabay)

SpaceX solves explosion riddle

Musk told the press that getting to the bottom of the mysterious explosion. “This was the toughest puzzle to solve that we’ve ever had to solve,” he said.

The explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and the $200 million satellite that it was supposed to carry into orbit. Engineers were confused by the explosion as it took place before the engines were fired up.

“I think we’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem,” he said. “It was a really surprising problem. It’s never been encountered before in the history of rocketry.”

Not only was the reusable rocket and its payload lost, but the explosion also cast doubt on future operations. This includes supply flights for the International Space Station, as SpaceX has a contract with NASA to take cargo to the station.

Investigation blames issue during fueling

SpaceX rocket launches were suspended indefinitely while the company worked out what had happened. Now it looks like the problem resulted from an issue with one of three pressure vessels that contain fuel in the Falcon 9. Reports say that scientists were able to make a similar failure under lab conditions at a company facility in Texas.

The failure occurred as liquid helium was loaded into carbon composite bottles in a tank that holds liquid oxygen inside the rocket. As a result, solid oxygen was created, which could have caused an explosion after igniting with the carbon composite.

“It’s never happened before in history, so that’s why it took us a while to sort it out,” Musk said. The investigation also involved NASA, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and commercial customers.

Launches to restart by mid-December

There were concerns that astronauts could be in greater danger when flying on the Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX previously stoked controversy when it suggested that astronauts should be strapped into their capsule before the rockets had been fueled, a proposal that was met with criticism by industry figures.

Space Station advisory committee head Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford of the Air Force said that the idea was “contrary to booster safety criteria that have been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally.”

SpaceX has since revealed that no final decision has been made on the boarding order. However, it does now seem likely that flights will start up again by mid-December.

“It looks like we’re going to be back to launching around mid-December,” said Musk. However he did not specify what would be carried on the flight, nor where the launch would take place.

One of the clients waiting on SpaceX is Inmarsat, a European satellite company. CEO Rupert Pearce spoke to investors during a conference call last week, providing information on prospects for satellite launches with the SpaceX rockets.

“We believe they now have found a root cause that is fixable quite easily and quite quickly,” he said during the call. “So they should be able to return to flight in December.”

Inmarsat is one of many customers that may face delays in launches. The suspension of flights means that there is now a backlog which must be worked through.