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SpaceX Rocket Explosion in Florida Likely to Delay Vandenberg AFB Launch

Booster with Israeli satellite aboard goes up in flames during testing; impact locally uncertain

Thursday’s explosion of a SpaceX rocket booster and satellite on the launch pad during testing in Florida could delay similar launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Click to view larger
Thursday’s explosion of a SpaceX rocket booster and satellite on the launch pad during testing in Florida could delay similar launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Courtesy photo)

Thursday's explosion of a Space Exploration Technologies rocket while perched on its launch pad in Florida puts the date of the Falcon mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base up in the air.

The SpaceX rocket blast occurred while crews were prepping the Falcon for a static fire test — loading fuel and firing the engines while remaining in place— just after 6 a.m. PDT.

“SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today's static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload,” the company said. “Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”

Video by USLaunchReport.com of the incident shows the rocket being engulfed in a big fireball, followed by several concussions, before the Falcon’s tip, or payload fairing, fell over.

A huge cloud of black smoke billowed from the scene, but no one was injured, and there were no threats to public safety, 45th Space Wing officials said.

“The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank, and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle,” SpaceX officials said later Thursday. 

“We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause. Additional updates will be provided as they become available.”

The rocket and its cargo, an Israeli communications satellite, were destroyed two days before their scheduled departure.

The Falcon rocket manifest called for Vandenberg’s mission to follow the Florida launch. 

However, rocket failures routinely lead to postponement of upcoming missions while engineers seek out the likely cause of the mishap and implement recommended fixes. 

The Vandenberg mission involves placing the first 10 next-generation Iridium satellites in orbit, with liftoff once planned for Sept. 19.

Iridium officials did not respond to a request for comment about how the mishap might affect the planned launch date.

On Friday, Iridium representatives posted a supportive message on Twitter page. "Confident SpaceX will resolve issues leading to this anomaly; ready to launch when they are."

This wouldn’t be the first time a Florida mishap affected the Vandenberg launch manifest. 

A June 2015 Falcon failure in Florida shortly after liftoff to deliver NASA cargo to the International Space Station led to delays for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Jason-3 craft’s departure from Vandenberg.

Once set for blastoff in August 2015, the Jason-3 mission got off the ground in January as Vandenberg's first launch of 2016.

At the start of the week, IridiumNEXT officials said the final Iridium satellites that make up the payload for the first mission had arrived at Vandenberg.

“We are very excited to have reached this stage of the program,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer of Iridium. “After all these years of preparation, it’s wonderful to have the first batch of satellites complete, on-site and being prepped for the first launch.  We want to express thanks to every person involved in the program who has helped get us to this point.”

The firm plans to launch 70 satellites in the next 18 months.

Iridium stock, which trades on NASDAQ under the symbol of IRDM, dropped 6.72 percent by the close of business Thursday. 

The bulk of the first-generation of Iridium satellites launched aboard Delta 2 rockets, with others flying on Russian and Chinese space boosters.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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