Large clouds of orange smoke were seen billowing up for miles on Saturday, stemming from an incident at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where SpaceX was testing its Crew Dragon capsule, the platform intended to ferry astronauts into orbit later this year. Few details are being released, but footage of the incident leaked onto Twitter before being deleted. According to reports from those who saw the footage, it seemed to show the Crew Dragon destroyed as a result of the incident that SpaceX and government statements characterize as an “anomaly.”
“On April 20, 2019, an anomaly occurred at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during the Dragon 2 static test fire,” 45th Space Wing spokesman Jim Williams told the press. “The anomaly was contained and there were no injuries.”
According to one source cited by Ars Technica, the orange color of the smoke suggested the one-to-two tons of nitrogen tetroxide housed within the spacecraft caught fire and was burning on the launch pad. The Crew Dragon capsule uses nitrogen tetroxide as an oxidizer for its on-board propulsion systems.
BREAKING: #SpaceX Crew Dragon suffered an anomaly during test fire today, according to 45th Space Wing. Smoke could be seen on the beaches.
“On April 20, an anomaly occurred at Cape Canaveral AFS during Dragon 2 static test fire. Anomaly was contained and no injuries.” pic.twitter.com/If5rdeGRXO
— Emre Kelly (@EmreKelly) April 20, 2019
The Crew Dragon capsule involved in the incident is reportedly the same one that successfully flew an unmanned mission to the International Space Station last month. The same capsule was also slated for a launch abort test later this summer, which would have seen the capsule launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket before using its on-board engines to separate and fly away from the rocket engine to demonstrate its ability to get astronauts out of harm’s way in the event a launch were to go wrong.
It seems the anomaly took place within the last ten seconds of Saturday’s countdown, but it remains unclear if the engines had already begun to fire. Because the test was slated to be ground-based, the platform was never intended to take to the sky and was heavily instrumented for testing data, so it seems likely that SpaceX has a solid understanding of exactly what happened, the information just isn’t being shared with the media yet.
It remains unclear what this development will mean for NASA’s manned spaceflight schedule, or for SpaceX’s manned rocket endeavors. SpaceX is no stranger to dramatic failures, even releasing a highlight reel of rockets that exploded along the company’s path to reliable orbital spaceflight in the past. Manned missions, however, come with a significant increase in the stakes when it comes to these sorts of failures.