26 October 2016
A fiery blast rips through the upper part of the Falcon 9 rocket before the vehicle collapses in flames on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida on Thursday. Photo: Reuters/US Launch Report
A fiery blast rips through the upper part of the Falcon 9 rocket before the vehicle collapses in flames on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida on Thursday. Photo: Reuters/US Launch Report

SpaceX rocket with satellite for Facebook project explodes

A rocket owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX blew up on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida on Thursday, destroying a satellite that Facebook planned to use to expand internet access across Africa.

SpaceX said there were no injuries and that an “anomaly” during the static fire test resulted in the loss of the rocket and a communications satellite owned by Israel-based Space Communication (Spacecom), Reuters reports.

Facebook would have been among the customers for bandwidth on that satellite.

Video showed a fiery blast ripping through the upper part of the rocket before the vehicle collapsed in flames on the launch pad just after 9 a.m. ET (9 p.m. in Hong Kong).

A plume of black smoke poured into the air.

The rocket’s loss occurred while the first and second stages were being filled with propellant, the company said in a statement.

“Cause still unknown. More soon,” Musk said on Twitter.

It was not immediately known to what extent SpaceX’s launch pad was damaged or what the impact would be on the dozens of NASA and commercial satellite missions on its launch schedule.

The company has a second launch site at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, and it has also leased one of the old space shuttle launch pads adjacent to its Cape Canaveral site.

SpaceX had been due to launch its 29th Falcon 9 rocket, which carries a list price of US$62 million, before dawn on Saturday, carrying the Spacecom-owned AMOS-6.

The explosion could derail the sale of Spacecom for US$285 million to Beijing Xinwei Technology Group (600485.CN).

The companies unveiled the agreement last week, but said it was contingent on the successful launch of the satellite and completion of its in-orbit tests.

In a statement to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, Spacecom said the loss will have “a significant impact” on the company. Its shares closed down 8.9 percent.

In a post from Africa, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he was deeply disappointed at the loss of the satellite which he said would have provided connectivity to many entrepreneurs and others across the continent.

“We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided,” he wrote.

SpaceX had planned to dispatch as many as nine more missions before the end of the year, including two flights to place a 20-member satellite network into orbit for Iridium.

It was due to launch its next mission in November to fly cargo to the International Space Station for NASA.

SpaceX is one of two companies that transports cargo to the orbiting laboratory, which flies 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

“NASA still is assessing what impacts, if any, the incident will have on future missions,” spokesman Michael Curie said.

Shares of Musk’s companies Tesla Motors and SolarCity closed down 5 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

SpaceX says it has a backlog of more than US$10 billion in launch orders from customers including NASA and commercial companies.

SpaceX was founded by Musk in 2002, and the Hawthorne, California-based company began launching its Falcon 9 rockets in June 2010.

Since then, it has racked up 27 successful flights and one launch accident in June 2015 that destroyed a load of cargo headed for the space station.

Musk set up SpaceX with the goal of slashing launch costs to make travel to Mars affordable.

The company plans to fly its first unmanned spacecraft to Mars in 2018 and to send humans to the red planet as early as 2024.

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