SpaceX starship explosion spews particles for miles

SpaceX's Starship rocket suffers a mid-flight failure after launch

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket after launch on a brief uncrewed test flight from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad near Brownsville, Texas, US, in a still image from video on April 20, 2023.

SpaceX | Reuters

SpaceX launched its largest rocket ever for the first time Thursday from its Boca Chica, Texas, spaceport. A Starship spacecraft, designed to someday fly people on a Mars mission, lifted off from the launch pad and then blew up mid-flight, with no crew aboard.

Now, residents and researchers are scrambling to assess the impact of the eruption on local communities, their health, habitat and wildlife, including endangered species. The primary concern is the large amount of particulate matter such as sand and ash and the heavy debris brought up by the launch. Particulate emissions spread outside the expected debris field.

As a result of the explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded the company’s Starship Super Heavy launch program pending the results of an “accident investigation,” part of standard practice, according to an agency email sent to CNBC after the launch. No injuries or damage to public property had been reported to the agency as of Friday.

SpaceX did not immediately return a request for comment.

Not in the plan

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, speaking publicly on Twitter Space before the test flight on April 16, admitted that the vehicle with 33 engines resembled a “box of grenades” and that the Starship vehicle was unlikely to reach orbit but was a possibility. to explode

However, Musk and SpaceX did not accurately predict that their launchpad would be destroyed, that particulate matter would rain down on residents and residences as far as Port Isabel, a town six miles from the launchpad, and South Padre Island. Miles up the coast from the site.

Images captured during the test flight showed that the SpaceX launch pad had also exploded, sending chunks of concrete flying in several directions, leaving a large crater below. According to Dave Cortez, director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, a 501c4 environmental advocacy group, “the concrete was released into the ocean and threatened to hit the fuel storage tanks that are silos adjacent to this launch pad.”

Jared Margolis, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that in the environmental assessment — which SpaceX completed to obtain the launch license — the company told the FAA and other agencies that they expected debris to fall in the event of an “anomaly.” In a limited, 700-acre area surrounding the launch site.

That would translate to a debris field of one square mile, with the debris ejected about three-quarters of a mile from the site, he said, referring to SpaceX. Environmental site assessment documents that are public records.

In fact, after the test flight and explosion, people in Port Isabel reported broken windows in their businesses, shaking windows in their homes, and dust and particulates that coated their homes, schools, and land unpredictably.

Port Isabel is a mainland city near the SpaceX spaceport, and across from South Padre Island offshore, which has also received its share of particles, according to correspondence between researchers and residents shared with CNBC.

It’s not yet known whether ash- and sand-like particles are dangerous to touch or breathe, and what impact they might have on soil health, both Cortez and Margolis noted.

An industry chronicler who reported locally on the launch, Levi Ohana, wrote that the launch was also “the loudest” she had ever seen, “with shockwaves that just felt like punching again and again and again.”

SpaceX's Starship rocket suffers a mid-flight failure after launch

Effects on Endangered Species

Margolis said the Center for Biological Diversity is concerned about the effects of noise, particulate matter and heavy debris on endangered species that make their home in the area, including the piping plover, red knot, jaguarundi, ocelot population and sea turtles including the Camps Ridley. , which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica and is one of the most critically endangered sea turtles in the world.

Nesting season for Kemp’s Ridley is from February to June.

The National Wildlife Refuge land, which is very close to the launch pad, is critical habitat for the Piping Plover, he emphasized.

Cortez added that Sierra Club members are particularly concerned about the effects on human health and how the aftermath of an eruption may limit people’s ability to get outside, whether they’re fishing for their dinner, enjoying the beach or hiking in the many parks and wildlife preserves. do Areas near starbases.

Health concerns

The effects of particulate emissions from the SpaceX launch will not be understood until samples are evaluated and the debris field is extensively measured.

But in general, particulate emissions are regulated under the federal Clean Air Act and Texas state law.

Eric Roche, an environmental engineer who has been tracking the impact of SpaceX facilities and launches on his blog, ESGHound, said particulate emissions have been linked to pulmonary and respiratory problems, and are considered a high priority pollutant by the EPA. Health effects depend on exposure time and quantity, as well as particle size and particle content, he added.

Roche has been warning the public for months that the FAA and SpaceX did not take enough care in their environmental analysis to proceed comfortably with a launch of this magnitude. “During the initial environmental permitting and approval process, the possibility of a widely dispersed plume of emissions was not disclosed by the FAA or SpaceX,” he said.

Margolis and Cortez noted that the roads were damaged when the doors and cordons were closed immediately after the SpaceX Starship test flight. That meant wildlife biologists and other field researchers could not immediately pass through the nearby wildlife refuge to study the full scale of any damage – although some were reported to be in place by Saturday 22 April.

One concern, Margolis said, is that evidence of harm to endangered species could be removed from the site before regulators have a chance to assess it.

A newly hatched piping plover chick stands next to its parent, Monty or Rose, on July 10, 2021, at Montrose Beach.

John J. Kim | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

Getting back on the flight

Elon Musk wrote in a tweet On April 21, 2023, after a test flight: “3 months ago, we started building a huge water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount. It wasn’t ready in time and we thought wrong based on static fire data. , that Fondag had it.” 1 will make it through the launch. It looks like we may be ready to launch again in 1 to 2 months.”

CNBC asked the FAA what it would take for SpaceX to authorize another test flight or launch of the Starship Super Heavy Vehicle from Boca Chica, Texas.

Returning to flight for the Starship Super Heavy would require the FAA to determine that “any system, process or procedure related to the accident does not affect public safety,” the agency said in an email.

Because they are still gathering information, the FAA and the Texas regional office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service could not yet answer questions about any environmental impacts of Thursday’s launch. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

However, the FAA told CNBC via e-mail that the explosion activated something called an “anomaly response plan,” which is part of a 2022 programmatic environmental assessment completed by the company with state and federal agencies, and that SpaceX has additional “environmental ” is mitigation” must be completed before they can launch again. The FAA noted that “the plan was triggered by debris entering nearby properties.”

After completing and reducing the list of tasks in the plan, SpaceX will need to ask the FAA to amend their launch license, to get approval for another test flight.

Center for Biological Diversity attorney Jared Margolis believes the FAA requirements would be minimal and easy for companies to meet, but ultimately ineffective in protecting the well-being of local residents and endangered species.

He explained, “We are not against space exploration or this company. But when we look to the stars, we should not sacrifice communities, habitats and species so easily.”

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