SpaceX suffers Merlin engine test mishap

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX said Nov. 8 that it suffered a failure of a Merlin engine during a recent test at its Texas facility, but that the incident would not delay any upcoming launches.

The incident, which took place Nov. 4 and was first reported by the Washington Post, may have involved a new version of the Merlin engine being developed by SpaceX for the next upgrade of the company’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

“SpaceX experienced an anomaly during a Qualification test set up of a Merlin engine at our rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas,” the company said in a statement to SpaceNews. No one was injured in the test, the company said, and “a thorough and fully transparent investigation” is underway, in coordination with various government agencies.

SpaceX has yet to disclose specific details about the incident, which a company source said took place on a Merlin test stand that has two bays. One bay reportedly suffered damage that will take two to four weeks to repair, while the neighboring bay received only minor damage that can be repaired in days.

The incident, according to the source, took place not during an actual engine firing but during a troubleshooting activity called a “LOX drop” where liquid oxygen is flowed through the engine to look for leaks. It wasn’t clear how this test led to the anomaly that damaged the engine and its test bay.

The mishap, SpaceX said in its statement, will not affect upcoming launches. “SpaceX is committed to our current manifest and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence,” the company stated.

SpaceX has enjoyed a banner year, having carried out 16 Falcon 9 launches to date. At least three more launches are scheduled for 2017, including one in mid-November carrying a classified payload known only as Zuma as well as December launches of a Dragon cargo spacecraft for NASA and the fourth set of 10 Iridium Next satellites. A first launch of the company’s long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket could also take place at the end of the year.

Company sources say SpaceX can continue those launches, even while this investigation continues, because the engine that suffered the testing mishap was an upgraded version for the forthcoming “Block 5” version of the Falcon 9. The company is currently flying the Block 4 version of the rocket, and has not set a firm date for starting flights of the Block 5 version.

That would explain why the company is able to continue Falcon 9 launches even while the investigation, which may take several weeks to complete, continues, as the engine that failed is not used on existing versions of the rocket. It would also explain why the company said the mishap took place during a “qualification test” of the engine, which would normally not take place once a version of that engine has entered service.

Other engine tests at the McGregor site are reportedly continuing while the investigation into this incident takes place.