An unmanned SpaceX rocket exploded about two minutes after liftoff from Florida on Sunday, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station in the latest in a string of mishaps in supplying the orbiting outpost.
The 208-foot-tall (63-meter) Falcon 9 rocket had flown 18 times previously since its 2010 debut, all successfully. Those missions included six station cargo runs for NASA under a 15-flight contract worth more than $2 billion.
However SpaceX, a company founded and owned by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, has twice previously tried and failed in an experiment to land the rocket on a platform in the ocean.
Sunday’s accident soon after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was the second successive botched mission to resupply the space station. A Russian Progress cargo ship failed to reach the outpost in April following a problem with its Soyuz launcher.
The cause of Sunday’s explosion was not yet clear, officials said.
“This was a blow to us. We lost a lot of research equipment on this flight,” NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told a news conference.
The explosion also marks a setback for SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies. The company was poised to compete for the first time against United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) and Boeing Co (BA.N) and the current sole launch provider for military and spy satellite launches, to launch a GPS III satellite.
An investigation into the explosion will ground the Falcon 9 rockets for “a number of months or so” but less than a year, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told the news conference.
A preliminary analysis indicated a problem with the rocket’s upper-stage engine, Musk said on Twitter.
The company had hoped to use the rocket’s discarded 14-story-tall first stage in an innovative landing test, part of its overall goal to refurbish and refly its rockets, slashing launch costs.
A platform had been stationed in the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of serving as a landing pad. Instead, the rocket broke apart in mid-air. Recovery teams were dispatched to attempt to collect debris for analysis.
Two previous experiments, in January and April, came close to succeeding but technical problems caused the rockets to crash into the platform.
SPACE STATION SUPPLIES
The International Space Station crew – two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut – has about four months of food and supplies on board, so the loss of the cargo shipment does not pose an immediate problem for them, said NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini.