That smooth SpaceX launch? Turns out one of the engines exploded

By John Timmer, Ars TechnicaOctober 08, 2012 at 12:15PM

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.

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