A rocket operated by the aerospace company SpaceX has exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral last week where it was being test-fired ahead of a launch.
The force of the blast shook buildings several miles away.
SpaceX said “an anomaly” had occurred while the rocket was being loaded with fuel. No-one was injured, it said.
The rocket’s payload, an Israeli-built communications satellite for Facebook due to launch on Saturday, was also destroyed, it added.
Facebook, in partnership with Eutelsat Communications, had been due to use the Amos-6 satellite to deliver broadband internet coverage for swathes of sub-Saharan Africa as part of its Internet.org initiative.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is currently visiting Africa, said he was “deeply disappointed” to hear that the satellite had been destroyed.
“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 on his Facebook account.
A leading Israeli space official said the loss of the Amos-6 satellite, valued at more than $200m (£150m) and owned by Spacecom, was a major blow to the industry.
“As far as the Israeli communications satellite industry is concerned, this is a very severe blow which could place the future of the industry in doubt if it is not dragged out of the mud,” said the chairman of the Israel Space Agency, Isaac Ben-Israel.
The way you don’t want it to turn out.
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station said a “significant” explosion had happened just after 09:00 (14:00 GMT) at Launch Complex 40, which is leased by SpaceX.
SpaceX said in a statement: “The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tanks and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle.
“As per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad and no-one was injured. We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause.”
SpaceX is aiming to create a new era of reusable rockets and affordable private space travel and has used its Falcon-9 rocket to take supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
In December last year, the California-based company successfully landed a Falcon-9 back on Earth after a mission to launch orbiting satellites – a first in rocketry.
SpaceX is run out of Hawthorne near Los Angeles by Elon Musk, who made his fortune with internet companies.
As well as being the rocket company’s CEO, he also heads up the Tesla electric car company.
Analysis: David Shukman, Science Editor, BBC News
Whatever the details of what went wrong at the launch-pad, this is bad news for one of the most ambitious-ever space programmes.
SpaceX has big dreams for cheap, frequent and distant space travel. This test-firing was meant to be routine, part of an accelerating series of launches.
Beyond it, SpaceX is looking to make history by re-using one of the massive first stages that was returned to Earth intact. The company is also preparing to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.
Most exotic of all, the company’s boss, Elon Musk, is due later this month to unveil his plans for a Mars colony, and how that would take effect.
There had been talk of the first SpaceX unmanned mission to the Red Planet in a couple of years’ time. All its timetables will now be in jeopardy.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is a NASA robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon in an eccentric polar mapping orbit. Data collected by LRO has been described as essential for planning NASA’s future human and robotic missions to the Moon. Its detailed mapping program is identifying safe landing sites, locating potential resources on the Moon, characterizing the radiation environment, and demonstrating new technologies.
The probe has made a 3-D map of the Moon’s surface and has provided high resolution images of Apollo landing sites. The first images from LRO were published on July 2, 2009, showing a region in the lunar highlands south of Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds).
Launched on June 18, 2009, in conjunction with the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), as the vanguard of NASA’s Lunar Precursor Robotic Program, LRO was the first United States mission to the Moon in over ten years. LRO and LCROSS were launched as part of the United States’s Vision for Space Exploration program.
Rockets spend most of their lives waiting. Here, the Delta IV Heavy that carried the National Reconnaissance Office’s mysterious payload into space on June 11 basks in a sunset.
Last weekend, a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket hurtled a mysterious payload into orbit. The classified cargo, delivered on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office, is possibly a spy satellite, though we may not know for years or more what it actually was. What we can do is bask in the beauty of a rocket hurtling an enigma into orbit.
Waiting In Daylight
“The Delta IV Heavy is capable of placing a payload of 6,750 kilograms (14,900 lb) directly into geosynchronous orbit,” says NASA, “or upwards of 14,000 kg (31,000 lb) into a geosynchronous transfer orbit.”
This is what 2,950 kilonewtons of thrust looks like.
Casual reminder that putting stuff on rockets and hurtling them into space is something humans do regularly now.
Nestling in a vast natural crater, China’s giant is about to come alive.
A colossal, steeply curved dish glints in the sunlight, surrounded by jagged mountains that cut into the sky. Construction workers, busy putting the finishing touches to this structure, look tiny against the huge backdrop. This is the largest radio telescope ever built, measuring 500m (1,640ft) across.
“In China, in astronomy, we’re far behind the world,” says Prof Peng Bo, the deputy project manager of the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope – or Fast for short.
We used to have to go abroad, to use telescopes outside China. I think it’s time for us to build something in China.”
Situated in Guizhou Province, in the south-west of the country, Fast dwarfs all other radio telescopes.
The former record-holder was the Aricebo Observatory, in Puerto Rico, with a diameter of 305m (1,000ft).
The Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank in the north of England measures 76m (249ft) across.
This isn’t simply one-upmanship – bigger really is better when it comes to radio astronomy.
While some telescopes, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, use light to see the visible Universe, a radio telescope is more like a giant ear “listening” for radio waves emitted by objects in deepest space.
Like light, radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation – but they have extremely long wavelengths, ranging from about a millimetre to more than 100km in length.
And because these cosmic signals have travelled for great distances in space they are also incredibly weak.
This is why radio telescopes need to be big – the larger the dish, the more signals it can collect.
China’s new telescope is so large that the team hopes it will pick up radio waves from the far reaches of the cosmos.
The telescope will be searching for ancient signals of hydrogen – one of the building blocks of the early Universe – to try to understand how the cosmos evolved.
It will also be hunting for new stars – in particular a rapidly rotating and extremely dense type of star called a pulsar – and it will even join the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
“The search for extraterrestrial life is a very hot topic for every telescope – and also for the public. I think Fast can make a contribution,” Peng says.
It took 10 years of trawling through satellite images of the Chinese countryside to find a natural depression big enough to fit the telescope inside.
But construction has taken place in record time – just over five years, and it’s nearly complete.
The Americans never cease to amaze when it comes to undertaking incredible projects.
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to construct and maintain an airborne observatory. NASA awarded the contract for the development of the aircraft, operation of the observatory and management of the American part of the project to the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in 1996. The DSI (Deutsches SOFIA Institut) manages the German parts of the project which are primarily science and telescope related. SOFIA’s telescope saw first light on May 26, 2010. SOFIA is the successor to the Kuiper Airborne Observatory.
SOFIA is based on a Boeing 747SP wide-body aircraft that has been modified to include a large door in the aft fuselage that can be opened in flight to allow a 2.5 m (8.2 ft) diameter reflecting telescope access to the sky. This telescope is designed for infrared astronomy observations in the stratosphere at altitudes of about 12 kilometres (41,000 ft). SOFIA’s flight capability allows it to rise above almost all of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks some infrared wavelengths from reaching the ground. At the aircraft’s cruising altitude, 85% of the full infrared range will be available. The aircraft can also travel to almost any point on the Earth’s surface, allowing observation from the northern and southern hemispheres.
Once ready for use, observing flights were expected to be flown 3 or 4 nights a week. Originally scheduled to be operational for 20 years, in its tentative budget for the fiscal year 2015 NASA announced that unless Germany’s aerospace center would contribute significantly more than previously agreed upon, the observatory would be grounded by 2015. The SOFIA Observatory is based at NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center at LA/Palmdale Regional Airport, California, while the SOFIA Science Center is based out of NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, California.
SOFIA uses a 2.5 m (8.2 ft) reflector telescope, which has an oversized, 2.7 m (8.9 ft) diameter primary mirror, as is common with most large infrared telescopes. The optical system uses a Cassegrain reflector design with a parabolic primary mirror and a remotely configurable hyperbolic secondary. In order to fit the telescope into the fuselage, the primary is shaped to an f-number as low as 1.3, while the resulting optical layout has an f-number of 19.7. A flat, tertiary, dichroic mirror is used to deflect the infrared part of the beam to the Nasmyth focus where it can be analyzed. An optical mirror located behind the tertiary mirror is used for a camera guidance system.
The telescope looks out of a large door in the port side of the fuselage near the airplane’s tail, and initially carried nine instruments for infrared astronomy at wavelengths from 1–655 micrometres (μm) and high-speed optical astronomy at wavelengths from 0.3–1.1 μm. The main instruments are the FLITECAM, a near infrared camera covering 1–5 μm; FORCAST, covering the mid-infrared range of 5–40 μm, and HAWC, which spans the far infrared in the range 42–210 μm. The other four instruments include an optical photometer and infrared spectrometers with various spectral ranges. SOFIA’s telescope is by far the largest ever to be placed in an aircraft. For each mission one interchangeable science instrument will be attached to the telescope. Two groups of general purpose instruments are available. In addition an investigator can also design and build a special purpose instrument. On April 17, 2012, two upgrades to HAWC were selected by NASA to increase the field of view with new detector arrays and to add the capability of measuring the polarization of dust emission from celestial sources.
The open cavity housing the telescope will be exposed to high-speed turbulent winds. In addition, the vibrations and motions of the aircraft introduce observing difficulties. The telescope was designed to be very lightweight, with a honeycomb shape milled into the back of the mirror and polymer composite material used for the telescope assembly. The mount includes a system of bearings in pressurized oil to isolate the instrument from vibration. Tracking is achieved through a system of gyroscopes, high speed cameras, and magnetic torque motors to compensate for motion, including vibrations from airflow and the aircraft engines. The telescope cabin must be cooled prior to aircraft takeoff to ensure the telescope matches the external temperature to prevent thermally induced shape changes. Prior to landing the compartment is flooded with nitrogen gas to prevent condensation of moisture on the chilled optics and instruments.
DLR is responsible for the entire telescope assembly and design along with two of the nine scientific instruments used with the telescope, NASA is responsible for the aircraft. The manufacturing of the telescope was subcontracted to European industry. The telescope is German; the primary mirror was cast by Schott AG in Mainz, Germany with lightweight improvements, with grinding and polishing completed by the French company SAGEM-REOSC. The secondary silicon carbide based mirror mechanism was manufactured by Swiss CSEM. A reflective surface was applied to the mirror at a facility in Louisiana but the consortium now maintains a mirror coating facility in Moffett Field, allowing for fast recoating of the primary mirror, a process that is expected to be required 1-2 times per year.
The primary science objectives of SOFIA are to study the composition of planetary atmospheres and surfaces; to investigate the structure, evolution and composition of comets; to determine the physics and chemistry of the interstellar medium; and to explore the formation of stars and other stellar objects. While SOFIA aircraft operations are managed by NASA Dryden, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, is home to the SOFIA Science Center which will manage mission planning for the program. On 29 June 2015, the dwarf planet Pluto passed between a distant star and the Earth producing a shadow on the Earth near New Zealand that allowed SOFIA to study the atmosphere of Pluto.
F/A-18 mission support aircraft shadows SOFIA during a functional check flight.