2013 September 28, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandeberg AFB carrying Canada’s Cassiope satellite and five smaller payloads (representing six satellites as two of them were joined together to be separated later when on-orbit). Soon after launch SpaceX said the satellites had been released, and the owners of Cassiope and DANDE reported establishment of communications with their satellites. Payload separation seemed to go well.
Normally, SpaceTrack would expect to be listing the six released satellite combinations, the rocket body and maybe a couple of debris items. A few hours after launch, the catalogue was showing 20 items in a scatter of orbit, indicating an explosion.
One of the satellites may be the suspect but the most likely culprit is SpaceX’s Falcon 9. It seems to have suffered some kind of failure after the payloads departed.
Fragments – Their Orbits
The twenty items show a scatter in apogee (1350-1654 km) and perigee (235-415 km) values, and inclinations vary between 80°.94 and 81°.04.
The chart shows that there was explosive force involved rather than a gentle disintegration. The cross indicates the target orbit and the fragments’ orbits are scattered fairly evenly around it.
During the SpaceX webcast of the ascent, video was shown from onboard the rocket. As the second stage was firing, it was a view of the engine nozzle.
Periodically, the view switched to an alternative angle and the video was immediately replaced by a message “Awaiting Downlink….”. At the time it was reasonable to assume that there was a problem with the data link from the camera even though the brief glimpse looked to be a reasonably clean image.
However, the cut-outs were accompanied by a breaks in the actual webcast, resulting in voice being cut mid-sentence and the mission clock disappearing. The clock would then re-appear followed shortly by the ‘standard’ view of the engine nozzle.
It begs the question of whether there was a problem that would have been evident to an engineer watching the webcast and whether SpaceX deliberately cut off the feed.
SpaceX is known to be sensitive about events surrounding its launches. Its web site and press releases are high on technical descriptions but lack detail of events. An earlier Falcon 9 launch suffered a problem that seemed to be acknowledged only because the detail had to be shared with NASA (because of the ISS connection). If that had not been the case, it might never have passed the ‘rumour’ stage.