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SpaceX rocket prototype explodes in test flight

Posted: August 22, 2014
Updated with details

A SpaceX rocket prototype designed to fine-tune vertical landing technology for reusable launchers exploded in a test flight in Central Texas on Friday, according to multiple eyewitness reports.

Photos posted to social media showed a fireball above SpaceX's rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas, about halfway between Dallas and Austin. Videos apparently depicted debris falling from the sky and firefighters responding to grass fires at the test site.

There were no injuries from the mishap, according to John Taylor, a SpaceX spokesperson.

The Falcon 9R rocket testbed, a modified version of a Falcon 9 rocket's first stage, was supposed to take off from a concrete pad on the power of three Merlin 1D engines, reach a predetermined altitude, then descend back to the ground and touch down using four landing legs.

"During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission," Taylor said in a statement.

A video released by the CBS television affiliate in Waco shows the mishap.

The video shows the explosion occurring during the rocket's climb.

The engines on the Falcon 9R can be throttled to control the rocket's vertical motion.

"Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area. There were no injuries or near injuries. An FAA representative was present at all times," Taylor said.

The Federal Aviation Administration licenses SpaceX's commercial launches and test flights.

SpaceX uses the 900-acre facility in McGregor for Merlin engine tests, Falcon 9 stage testing, post-flight servicing of its Dragon space station supply ship, and short hops of the Falcon 9R testbed.

The Falcon 9R testing in Texas is one part of SpaceX's strategy to demonstrate the feasibility of returning Falcon 9 rocket first stages to precision landings. Once SpaceX is able to recover a Falcon 9 first stage intact, engineers plan to refurbish the rocket and fly it on another mission.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk says "rapid and complete" reusability of the Falcon 9 rocket will cut launch costs to a fraction of today's prices.

Musk posted an update to his Twitter account following Friday's rocket explosion: "Three engine F9R Dev1 vehicle auto-terminated during test flight. No injuries or near injuries. Rockets are tricky..."

Sources said Musk was in McGregor to view the test flight Friday.

"With research and development projects, detecting vehicle anomalies during the testing is the purpose of the program," Taylor said. "Today's test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test."

SpaceX planned to fly another Falcon 9R vehicle from White Stands, N.M., for high-altitude testing. Officials have said flights from McGregor are limited to approximately 10,000 feet in altitude due to nearby populations.

File photo of a previous Falcon 9R test flight. Credit: SpaceX
Videos of previous Falcon 9R tests showed the rocket flying up to 1,000 meters, or nearly 3,300 feet, over McGregor this spring.

"F9R test flights in New Mexico will allow us to test at higher altitudes than we are permitted for at our test site in Texas, to do more with unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more-flight like," SpaceX wrote in an update accompanying a video release from an earlier Falcon 9R test flight.

The Falcon 9R was a follow-up to the Grasshopper vehicle, a smaller testbed that conducted initial vertical takeoff and landing tests before it was retired last year.

"As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test," Taylor said. "SpaceX will provide another update when the flight data has been fully analyzed."

A Falcon 9 rocket was scheduled to lift off early Tuesday from Cape Canaveral with the AsiaSat 6 telecommunications satellite. The prototype rocket lost Friday and the Falcon 9 use the same type of engines.

SpaceX declined to say if the launch could be delayed after Friday's Falcon 9R mishap in Texas.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.