On the morning of 1 September 2016, a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket carrying an Israeli satellite called Amos-6 exploded three minutes prior to a scheduled static fire test. SpaceX confirmed the event, stating that an anomaly had occurred in the upper stage of the oxygen tank as they were loading propellant into the rocket. The cause is still under review.
Also lost during the explosion was the rocket’s payload: the Amos-6 satellite, which was built by Israel Aerospace Industries (an aerospace and defense contractor) and operated by the telecommunications company Spacecom. According to Spacecom’s web site, the new satellite would provide expanded coverage and redundancy in case of other existing satellite malfunction:
AMOS-6 strengthens 4°W orbital location with wider coverage and new services. AMOS-6 high power and large amount of Ku-band transponders offer Spacecom’s existing and new customers a reliable growth-engine for their business. AMOS-6 enhances Spacecom’s existing service offering by supporting a full range of services, including Direct-To-Home (DTH), video distribution, VSAT communications and broadband Internet.
Facebook had also leased some of the communication equipment on this satellite to support their effort to provide free internet access to large swaths of Africa. After this loss of the satellite, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg postsed a statement:
As I’m here in Africa, I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.
Fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well. We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided.
The most widely shared video of the explosion comes from USLaunchReport.com (an NGO that “produces video reports of all things space”). This video appears to show a rapidly moving object cross above the rocket right before it explodes:
Some culprits discussed on the original Reddit thread include: aliens, a private aerospace competitor to SpaceX, a government worried about an Israeli spy satellite/weapons system, and/or Facebook’s world domination plans. These claims have been amplified by the conspiracy focused website Neon Nettle, and others.
What complicates this “evidence” is that there are a number of other objects, generally reported as birds or bugs, that make similar appearances before (and after) the explosion with far less fanfare. To successfully argue something scandalous, one has to prove that the object can’t be a bird or a bug. Those in favor of an intentional sabotage conspiracy point to three arguments:
- The object is traveling too fast to be a bird or a bug
- The object is a shiny orb, and clearly not a bird or a bug
- The object moves in a perfectly straight line, unlike other objects prior to the explosion
- If the object is behind the rocket relative to the camera, the conclusion must be be that it is both larger and moving much more quickly than a bug or a bird in the foreground.
Unfortunately, the fact that a massive telephoto lens captured the video adds to the challenge, if not outright impossibility of accurately assessing any of these questions scientifically. This camera, based on the time it took the noise of the explosion to reach it (~12 seconds) is easily over two miles away from the pad (assuming sound traveling at 0.2 miles per second). The further the zoom, the more of an effect the lens will have on an object’s perceived distance and size. An object closer to the camera, additionally, would be required to travel at a much slower speed to make it from one side of the frame to the other compared to something two miles away.
Moreover, YouTube videos such as the uslaunchreport.com video are subjected to lossy compression, an effect resulting in loss of information as well as the introduction of potential artifacts. Per the FBI’s Recommendations and Guidelines for the Use of Digital Image Processing in the Criminal Justice System:
Lossy compression achieves greater reduction in file size by removing both redundant and irrelevant information. Because the irrelevant information (as determined by the compression algorithm) cannot be replaced upon reconstruction of an image for display, lossy compression results in some loss of image content as well as the introduction of artifacts.
This effect is minimal when you are not zooming in, but it becomes a bigger issue when you try to get a level of detail that has already been removed by a compression algorithm.
An image treated in this way has been making the rounds as evidence that this object was “clearly” behind the left-most tower on the launch pad (these towers are used to protect the rocket from lightning strikes):
Without more information, It is impossible to know what these pixels are telling us. If the object is in the foreground (and not in the background, as conspiracy theorists suggest) then the issues of the object’s apparent larger-than-bird size and faster-than-bug speed can easily be attributed to that fact.
The other argument in favor of the object being both distant and fast moving also comes from questionable handling of compressed images. According to some believers, there is a reflected glow off of the object when it passes over the explosion. These images, which also purport to show that the object doesn’t look bird- or bug-like, have been “enhanced,” by methods that are not plainly documented:
It is unclear what processes, outside of inverting the colors, went into the creation of these images, but zooming in on the object in each frame without any “enhancement” does not appear to reveal much about reflected light or shape:
A final flaw in the alien/government/evil corporation argument is that it does not explain how an object traveling above the rocket (without making any physical contact) would cause its explosion, nor does it touch on why this novel method might have been employed.
Do we know for sure what this object is? No. But the prevalence of similar harmless objects prior to the explosion, the fact that the evidence is based on wishfully enhanced screengrabs of downsampled video, and the fact that rockets are super explosive on their own, make an outside agent low on the list of possible explanations.