Sunday, September 4, 2016

One accident (SpaceX) , multiple casualties - Aharon Lapidot

by Aharon Lapidot

The damage, which will have an adverse effect on many fields, will be felt immediately, but also in the long run, on a more strategic level.

Only rarely does an accident undo scientific progress. The explosion at the SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Thursday was one such accident. The damage, which will have an adverse effect on many fields, will be felt immediately, but also in the long run, on a more strategic level.

The explosion is a crushing blow to the Israeli satellite industry, and especially to the Israel Aerospace Industries. 

It must be stated that the IAI shares no blame for the explosion. The Israeli engineers are the victims, so to speak, because years of meticulous effort and superb design went down the drain. The satellite on the Falcon 9 rocket payload, the Amos-6, was the IAI's crown jewel. It was the largest, most sophisticated and most advanced satellite it ever built. 

According to some, it was the most advanced satellite of its kind. The Amos-6 had a long and distinguished "lineage" of Israeli communication satellites. It is thanks to the various iterations of the Amos satellites that Israel ranks as one of the most technologically advanced nations. Watching it go up in flames on the launch pad must have been heart-wrenching for all those involved. 

The accident will have major repercussions. It will take years before the IAI can build another satellite, and it is unclear whether anyone would be willing to commission another such satellite. 

Facebook planned to use the satellite for connecting rural Africa to the internet through a space version of Wi-Fi. Amos-6 was the most important element of this project, because it was to serve as the backbone of this service. But now the internet giant will have to postpone its project indefinitely. This is a loss not just for Facebook, but for Africa as well. 

Israel-based Spacecom Satellite Communications, which operated the Amos satellite series, is now devastated, not just because a sophisticated satellite worth some $200 million was torn to pieces. The company announced its acquisition by Beijing Xinwei Technology Group just last week, but in the wake of Thursday's accident, this acquisition, which was contingent on a successful launch this coming Saturday, will not move forward and it is unclear whether the Israeli company has a future at all. 

Elon Musk's SpaceX also suffered a massive blow Thursday. The company has been developing trailblazing, bold technology, very much like Musk himself, who introduced to the world the popular electric car Tesla. 

The SpaceX rocket that was to deliver Amos-6 to space is the world's first reusable satellite launch vehicle. 

Other orbital launchers, such as the European Ariane 5 and the American Delta IV, are not designed for multiple launches. SpaceX hopes "reused" rockets will help protect the environment and reduce costs. Over the past several months it managed to land three rockets on a floating platform after sending them to space. The explosion on Thursday, which is still being investigated, will no doubt cast a big shadow over the future of this rocket. 

The explosion will be heard around the world. Confidence in advanced technology will be shaken, and as a consequence, development will slow, and there will be a delay in connecting large swaths of Africa to the internet. Meanwhile, in Israel, one of the most advanced industries could go under.

Aharon Lapidot


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