Science & Technology

Next-generation SpaceX rocket engine goes up in flames during Texas test

SpaceX says its next-generation Merlin rocket engine experienced a fiery anomaly during preparations for testing at its facility in McGregor, Texas, but the flare-up isn’t expected to have an effect on the company’s ambitious launch schedule.

No injuries were reported in the wake of Saturday’s explosion, which occurred while engineers were running liquid oxygen through an engine that’s designed to be used on the next iteration of SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, known as Block 5.

Engineers use the procedure, which is called a LOX drop, to look for leaks in the engine’s supply lines. It serves as part of the setup for qualification tests of the Block 5 engine, which is destined to be more powerful than the current Block 4 version of the Falcon 9.

It’s not yet fully clear why the explosion occurred during the LOX drop. In a statement emailed to GeekWire today, SpaceX said “all safety protocols were followed during the time of this incident.”

“We are now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause,” the California-based company said. “SpaceX is committed to our current manifest and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence.”

The bay that was being used for the test was significantly damaged, and it’ll take two to four weeks for repairs. However, another bay was only slightly damaged, and should be ready to resume SpaceX’s routine tests for Block 4 engines within three days or so.

Block 5 engine testing is being suspended while the investigation proceeds. SpaceX is expected to make the transition to the Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket sometime next year, but no firm date has been set.

In the coming weeks, SpaceX is expected to use Falcon 9 rockets to launch a cargo shipment to the International Space Station, another batch of 10 telecommunications satellites for the Iridium Next constellation, and a mystery payload currently known only as Project Zuma.

The company is also gearing up for the first test flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which has 27 Merlin rocket engines on its three first-stage cores.

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