SpaceX rocket blast a major blow to Facebook expansion plans

Mark Zuckerberg expresses concern as Florida blast also destroys communications satellite

A SpaceX rocket carrying a communications satellite exploded on the launchpad this morning, dealing a major blow to Facebook's plans for expanding internet services in Africa.

The Falcon 9 rocket, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, had been scheduled for launch on Saturday, and its payload included a satellite for Spacecom, an Israeli company.

Facebook had arranged to use the satellite once it was in orbit to provide web connectivity to parts of the world that have little if any internet.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, expressed his concern in a strongly worded post on his page. "As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent," Mr Zuckerberg wrote.

For his part, Elon Musk, the technology entrepreneur and head of SpaceX, tweeted a rather brief explanation of the incident, which occurred during preparations for a test firing of the rocket's engines: "Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation. Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon."

The company has had problems in the past with its Falcon 9, one of which fell apart during a launch a little more than a year ago.

Mr Musk not only runs SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp, of Hawthorne, California, but is also the chief executive of Tesla, the electric car company.

Commercial satellites

SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 rocket, largely with Nasa financing, for cargo missions, but has also built a large business launching commercial satellites into orbit.

Beginning as early as next year, Nasa also has plans to use the Falcon 9 rocket to carry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

The explosion today could push that timetable back.

The destruction of the rocket’s payload, the satellite called Amos-6, puts a significant damper on Facebook’s initiative, a grand plan spearheaded by Mr Zuckerberg to provide wireless connectivity to nations across the world that do not otherwise have easy access to the internet.

In a partnership with Eutelsat, a French satellite provider, Facebook planned to use Amos-6 to offer internet access coverage to large parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Along with satellite coverage, Facebook is partnering with local internet providers to offer access, and is also building its own drones - the first of which is named Aquila - to beam internet connectivity down to cities from the sky.

Details of Thursday morning’s rocket failure trickled out on Twitter and other sites. A webcam at the Nasa Kennedy Space Center showed billowing smoke rising into the sky from the SpaceX launchpad, and nearby residents reported feeling vibrations from the explosion.

Nasa confirmed the incident at Space Launch Complex 40 occurred shortly after 9am and said it was monitoring the air quality in the area around the centre.

It was the second mishap for the Falcon 9. In June last year, a rocket carrying Nasa cargo to the International Space Station fell apart in-flight when a strut holding a helium bottle snapped, setting off a cascade of events that destroyed the rocket moments later.

On the same day as Thursday's explosion, a report released by Nasa's inspector general said both SpaceX and Boeing, the other company that Nasa has hired to carry astronauts into space, are likely to face additional delays in their launch schedules.

The crewed launches were originally scheduled to begin last year but now are unlikely to begin before the second half of 2018, the inspector general said.

The company lists about 40 launches of satellites and other cargo on its manifest for commercial companies, Nasa and the US Air Force.

New York Times service