What Impact Will the Falcon 9 Explosion Have on the Space Community?First Published: September 4, 2016 Last updated: July 28th, 2018 Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
In the last few days, the horrific incident at the Falcon 9 missile launch has been headline news. The Israeli-based satellite system, supposedly backed by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, was taken out. We still don’t know if something caused this to occur or if it was a man-made error, but hopefully we can find out in the near future.
However, the interesting part of this incident is that it may have some pretty serious ramifications. The space industry itself has been sent into a tailspin following the explosion. Experts are now claiming that commercial and government projects could be hurt by this. Loss of confidence in the market, a lack of sales opportunity and a mistrust of safety have all be stated as valid concerns.
Now, the battle comes back to the industry experts as they try and convince the public that there is nothing to fear here. The hope is that, when the dust settles, the space community can get back to continued improvement. However, with talk of one leading satellite operator already seeing struggles in a long-discussed sale, things might be rocky for a little while yet.
The Explosion Itself
This explosion took place during the preparations on a stick fire test. This is a standard part of pre-launch testing but, this time, things do not seem to have gone to plan. The issue here is that the Falcon 9 flight, taking off at Cape Canaveral Complex 40, never seen testing through to the end.
The reasons why are still being looked into. At the moment, though, many within the industry just want to see a return to pre-explosion confidence levels. The testing was taking place before September 3rd, when the Amos-6 launch was about to take place. This would have been for the Israeli satellite operation team Spacecom.
According to SpaceX, this payload was destroyed during the failure that occurred. This could also mean that the Spacecom sale, which we mentioned above, grinds to a crushing halt. They were in discussion with Beijing Xinwei Technology Group, a massive Chinese firm looking to expand. This deal was announced in late August, and was predicated on the success of the launch of the Amos-6.
With this failure, discussions on the sale could revert back to square one. Also, confidence in the industry as a whole has plummeted at the moment.
Indeed, shares in the company feel by a whopping 9% after the explosion took place on Thursday. This was a rapid fall for the company, and would do little to dispel rumors of problems with the Beijing deal.
At the moment, though, we don’t know what the cause of the explosion was. We suggest that until we know exactly why the failure occurred, it would be hard to find an agreement. It also means that, until we have answers, the space community is likely to suffer as confidence from outside investors pauses.
The likelihood is, then, that Spacecom will be going through a downtime until Falcon 9 is ready to go again. This could be a real spanner in the works for both commercial customers and for other organizations such as NASA. Indeed, SpaceX had planned to carry out as many as nine new Falcon 9 launches by the end of the calendar year. With this mission dead in the water at present, we expect to see further and significant delays across the board. Confidence in space missions has been minimal in the past, though, before recoveries have stopped declines.
However, space incidents are usually as bad as this one. One of the main affected parties at the moment is a group known as Iridium, which planned to launch ten satellites ASAP. They would have been working alongside next generation constellations on a Falcon 9, via Vandenberg Air Force Base. This would have taken place at the second half of September, but these plans are now delayed for the long-term.
Indeed, Iridium planned to launch another ten more towards the end of the year. This confidence, though, has been significantly shaken by the events that have taken place. With Iridium keen to get the ball rolling again, though, we could see some problems in the community. Iridium is suffering from having poor quality, aging satellites in the sky which need to be replaced.
These delays will only hold up that modernization of their product range for some time. This could become a common problem for the industry as we continue to see businesses suffer in this challenging climate.
SES in Trouble
Another company which is likely to see a negative hit from this failure is SES. They planned to release both SES-10 and SES-11 satellites on future Falcon 9 launches later on this year. This has been scrapped for now, though, as further delays across the industry will slow down production. Indeed, the plan was for SES-10 to use a Falcon 9 first stage launch on a NASA cargo mission. This would have been the first time that a Falcon 9 first stage launch would have been re-used. Now, this piece of history will need to wait.
The Falcon 9 launch has hampered massive sums of businesses and experts, though. For one, a major commercial opportunity had existed at EchoStar, KT Corp. and the Taiwanese National Space Program Office. All of these major players were ready to take part in near Falcon launches, but confidence has wavered.
The hope was that the Taiwanese launch would have allowed for Spaceflight Industries’ Sherpa to come along with, introducing 90 smaller satellites to the sky. Naturally, these events will all have to wait until a solution can be found for the challenges ahead.
NASA is also suffering from the problems being suffered. They intended to launch a Dragon cargo mission to the ISS in November, using a Falcon 9. With the delays now hitting every project possible, it’s likely that NASA will have to change plans. This further complicates an already knife-edge scenario, with re-supply schedules already struggling from earlier delays.
The failure to launch an earlier Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft exists here. It was previously scheduled for August, and the Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle was delayed from early October onward.
These constant and added delays will have knockdown effects across the industry. From SpaceX intending to carry out unmanned Crew Dragon tests in May 2017, everything may find itself on hold.
It’s safe to say, then, that the events of the other day have had a pretty profound effect on the industry.
We await with interest to see how the experts will handle these major delays. The space industry has long had to deal with problems regarding launch issues and a lack of confidence from investors. With many co-operations going on, too, many other space crews are beginning to find their own ambitions are being limited.
Whilst nothing can be done to avoid accidents, they do occur – and the ripple effect is dangerous. It’ll be interesting to see what the long-term response is to trying to handle the damage. This has been one of the largest space-related incidents in some time, so it will be exciting in a way to see how it’s dealt with.
What do you think the best solution would be?