SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk speaks during the Space X ground breaking ceremony at the Boca Chica Launch Site on the southern tip of Texas. (Brad Doherty The Brownsville Herald, AP)
San Francisco - A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded in Florida, marking the second loss of a spacecraft by Elon Musk’s venture in a little more than a year and hobbling an effort by Facebook to spread internet access in Africa.
The incident occurred Thursday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 as SpaceX prepared for Saturday’s launch of Amos-6, an Israeli communications satellite, which was also destroyed in the blast.
Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg had been counting on the satellite to help extend Internet access in parts of Africa, he has said.
SpaceX blamed an “anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload” in an e-mailed statement. “Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”
The blast, which occurred shortly after 09:00 local time during a test firing of the rocket’s engines, left a plume of thick black smoke and rattled windows in buildings miles away from the launch pad, according to Twitter posts. It was a reminder of the danger of space flight, which relies on controlled explosions to power payloads to orbit.
Israeli satellite operator Space Communication tumbled 8.9% to 39.08 shekels at the close in Tel Aviv, the biggest drop in nine months. The successful launch of the Amos 6 satellite was a condition of the company’s $285m sale to a Beijing Xinwei Group unit, according to an August 24 filing to the Tel Aviv stock market.
“The deal will either be canceled or the price will be reduced,” said Meir Slater, head of research at Bank of Jerusalem.
“The majority of the company’s value is tied to Amos 2 and Amos 6. These satellites are insured, so the bondholders are covered, but in terms of the shareholders, they lose out because any damage done to the satellites means a loss of customers such as Facebook.”
The destroyed satellite was intended to beam internet service to Sub-Saharan Africa as part of a collaboration between Facebook and Eutelsat to connect people in remote parts of the world, Zuckerberg wrote in an October 5 post. The AMOS-6 was to cover large parts of West, East and Southern Africa, Zuckerberg said.
“We’re going to work with local partners across these regions to help communities begin accessing internet services provided through satellite,” he said in the post.
The executive is currently on his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, where he has been meeting with entrepreneurs and app developers in Nigeria. Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Saturday’s launch was to be the ninth of the year for Space Exploration Technologies, which had settled into a steady tempo of flights following a June 2015 accident that grounded its rockets for six months. That failure was linked to a two-foot-long, inch-thick strut that snapped in a liquid oxygen tank.
Musk’s Hawthorne, California-based company has shaken up the space industry by introducing cost competition and successfully landing rocket boosters to be reused. It has won contracts with NASA to ferry cargo and crew to the International Space Station and agreements with commercial satellite companies to send satellites into orbit.