In a major setback to Israel’s space program, a rocket carrying the most-advanced Israeli communications satellite in history exploded on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday, destroying the $200 million device just two days before it was scheduled to take off into space.
The Israel Space Agency said an explosion occurred during the fueling of the missile launcher, leading to the satellite’s total loss, which will have a “substantial effect on the agency.”
Israel Aerospace industries (IAI), which made the satellite, said Amos 6 was the “most advanced” to be built in Israel by it and the Israel Space Agency.
“Construction work ended recently, and the satellite was taken to the launch site in Florida,” IAI said. IAI expressed sorrow over the lost satellite, adding that it “remains at the ISA’s service on all matters.”
The cause of the explosion has not yet been determined. The Amos-6 satellite, built by Israel Aerospace Industries and owned by the Ramat Ganbased Spacecom Ltd., was to head into space for a 16-year mission that was meant to serve Facebook, bring Internet connectivity to Africa, and television service to providers in Europe and the Middle East.
“The communications satellite field is strategic for IAI and the State of Israel,” said the Israel Space Agency. “We hope that the state will continue to act in favor of safeguarding knowledge in this field, and for further manufacturing of Israeli communications satellites,” it added.
The blast comes at a time of high uncertainty over the future of the Israeli space program, with industry officials questioning whether there would be sufficient future orders to keep the program going.
The Falcon-9, a rocket manufactured by Elon Musk’s private aerospace company SpaceX, disappeared from view in the explosion, which was felt miles away.
SpaceX said there were no injuries, but that an “anomaly” during the static fire test resulted in the loss of the rocket and the Amos-6 satellite.
In a post from Africa, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he was deeply disappointed at the loss of the satellite which he said would have provided connectivity to many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.
“We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided,” he wrote.
The satellite was originally scheduled for launch in July, but this was delayed to September 3.
Musk said on Twitter that the loss of the rocket had occurred while it was being filled with propellant and that the problem originated around the upper stage oxygen tank.
“Cause still unknown. More soon,” Musk tweeted.
Currently, Israel has three working civilian satellites and eight military satellites in orbit around the Earth. All contact with the Amos-5 satellite was lost last year.
People in buildings far from the launch facility wrote on social media that they felt the blast, and posted images showing flames and a plume of thick black smoke coming from the site.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of slashing launch costs to make travel to Mars affordable. The company plans to fly its first unmanned spacecraft to Mars in 2018 and to send humans to the Red Planet as early as 2024.
It was not immediately known if SpaceX’s launchpad was damaged or what the impact would be on the dozens of NASA and commercial satellite missions on its launch schedule.
SpaceX had recovered from a June 2015 launch accident that destroyed a load of cargo headed for the International Space Station.Michael Wilner in Washington and Reuters contributed to this report.