Does SpaceX suspect that rival United Launch Alliance (ULA) had something to do with the explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on September 1 during routine testing at a Cape Canaveral launchpad? That's the idea behind a new report from the Washington Post over the weekend. The Post's report has led some to take the speculative leap that perhaps, just maybe, SpaceX suspects that someone on the rooftop of a nearby ULA building shot the rocket with a rifle.
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Here's what we know: SpaceX officials investigating the September 1 incident requested access to the rooftop of a building owned by ULA that sits near the explosion site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, according to an anonymous report provided to the Washington Post. United Launch Alliance is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that competes with SpaceX to provides spacecraft launch services to NASA and the Department of Defense.
Industry officials with knowledge of the incident told the Washington Post that "SpaceX had still images from video that appeared to show an odd shadow, then a white spot on the roof of a nearby building belonging to ULA."
The description of activities on the ULA rooftop has led some to question whether SpaceX suspects that a gunshot might have breached the second stage helium system, causing the explosion. This conjecture is also fueled by a September 9 tweet from Elon Musk that said the company was trying to determine the source of a quieter bang just before the explosion.
United Launch Alliance denied SpaceX officials access to the rooftop in question, which sits about a mile away from the launchpad where the explosion occurred, Space Launch Complex 40, and has a clear field of view to the site. However, the ULA representative called in Air Force investigators who inspected the roof and found nothing that could have linked it with the Falcon 9 explosion, according to the Washington Post.
A SpaceX spokesperson issued the following statement to Popular Mechanics after a call for comment:
The Accident Investigation Team has an obligation to consider all possible causes of the anomaly, and we aren't commenting on any specific potential cause until the investigation is complete. A preliminary review of the data and debris suggests a breach in the second stage's helium system, but the cause of the breach is still unknown. We have sought all available data to support the investigation in a timely manner following the anomaly, as expected for any responsible investigation.
You should be pretty skeptical of this crazy idea, at least until we know more. It seems preposterous that the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between two of the biggest giants in the aerospace industry, would plot to destroy SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket with a projectile from a sniper rifle. It also seems highly unlikely that a fanatic could have gained access to the roof and pulled off the exceedingly difficult mile-long shot. (The longest confirmed sniper kill in warfare, for comparison, is just over 1.5 miles.)
Still, it's a little odd that SpaceX investigators wanted to go snooping around the rooftop of a ULA facility. Perhaps it is simply routine investigation procedure, but the reported images of "an odd shadow, then a white spot" on the rooftop certainly add an element of mystery to this investigation.