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Elon Unfriended? SpaceX Rocket Blast Destroys Facebook Satellite

An unmanned SpaceX rocket with a satellite that would provide Internet to Africa as its payload exploded two days before launch. What does it mean for the project?

A SpaceX 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 Inc. 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. The explosion happened as the rocket was being fueled before a test of its engines. Both the Falcon 9 rocket and the satellite were destroyed.

“Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation,” Musk said in a tweet. “Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.”

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg quickly posted on his social network:

The blast, which occurred shortly after 9 a.m. 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 Ltd. tumbled 8.9 percent 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 $285 million sale to a Beijing Xinwei Group unit, according to an Aug. 24 filing to the Tel Aviv stock market.

Facebook Project

“The deal will either be canceled or the price will be reduced,” said Meir Slater, head of research at Bank of Jerusalem. “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 Oct. 5 post. The Amos-6 was to cover large parts of West, East and Southern Africa, Zuckerberg said. He’s currently on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, where he has been meeting with entrepreneurs and app developers.

Now the Facebook satellite is providing free Internet to the angels. Rest in peace, Facebook satellite.
Image: Facebook

SpaceX Launches

Saturday’s launch was to be the ninth of the year for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., 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.

SpaceX blamed the latest explosion on 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.”

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.

Authors: Dana Hull and Julie Johnsson

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