Those of us who watched the live feed of last night’s Falcon 9 launch could be forgiven for assuming that everything went according to plan. All the reports that came through over the audio were heavy on the word “nominal,” and the craft successfully entered an orbit that has it on schedule to dock with the International Space Station on Wednesday. But over night, SpaceX released a slow-motion video of what they’re calling an “anomaly.”
Watch the video embedded below (starting at about the 27-second mark), though, and the term anomaly will look like a serious understatement. The video clearly shows a larger burst of flame within the normal plume of rocket exhaust, followed shortly by debris falling from the rocket.
The Falcon 9, as its name implies, has nine engines, and is designed to go to orbit if one of them fails. On-board computers will detect engine failure, cut the fuel supply, and then distribute the unused propellant to the remaining engines, allowing them to burn longer. This seems to be the case where that was required, and the computers came through. The engines are also built with protection to limit the damage in cases where a neighboring engine explodes, which appears to be the case here.
SpaceX has indicated that it will provide a more detailed report on the event later today. We’ll update the story when that becomes available.The remaining engines shrug off the apparent explosion of their neighbor.
SpaceX has released the following statement:
Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued immediately. We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of Falcon 9’s other eight engines were impacted by this event.
As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in real time to ensure Dragon’s entry into orbit for subsequent rendezvous and berthing with the ISS. This was achieved, and there was no effect on Dragon or the cargo resupply mission.
Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do. Like the Saturn V, which experienced engine loss on two flights, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission.