Frustration, questions after satellite bringing Africa internet blows up
Facebook vows to soldier on with effort after SpaceX rocket explodes, destroying Israeli-made Amos-6 orbiter; blast expected to impact business for Israeli space firms, could imperil TV provider
An Israeli satellite destroyed in Thursday explosion of SpaceX’s rocket was the country’s most ambitious space platform to date, and was slated to bring internet access to vast swaths of rural Africa.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, visiting Kenya, expressed frustration Thursday hours after the SpaceX rocket meant to take the Israeli-made Amos-6 satellite into orbit exploded during a test on the launchpad, destroying the device slated to be a linchpin of Facebook’s effort to bring speedy internet access to sub-Saharan Africa.
“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,” said Zuckerberg in a post Thursday from Nairobi, where he was meeting with local officials to advance efforts to provide internet access in Africa.
He added that the setback would not spell the end of his initiative.
“We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided,” he wrote.
Zuckerberg’s social media company has pinned great hopes on its Internet.org initiative, launched in 2013, to bring stable internet access to billions throughout the world who currently lack what has become a staple of economic growth and daily life in the developed world.
The initiative’s first major breakthrough was to be the broadband unit aboard the Amos-6.
In October, as Facebook and French satellite operator Eutelsat Communications announced they were working jointly with Israeli operator Spacecom to deliver satellite broadband internet to connectivity-hungry sub-Saharan Africa, Zuckerberg laid out his vision.
“As part of our collaboration with Eutelsat, a new satellite called AMOS-6 is going to provide internet coverage to large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa,” he wrote in a Facebook post at the time. “The AMOS-6 satellite is under construction now and will launch in 2016 into a geostationary orbit that will cover large parts of West, East and Southern Africa. We’re going to work with local partners across these regions to help communities begin accessing internet services provided through satellite.”
Eutelsat said in a statement at the time that the project was to offer access “using affordable, off-the-shelf” hardware, sharing capacity with Facebook in regions often lacking access to reliable fixed and mobile terrestrial networks.
Zuckerberg’s October post included photos and artists’ renderings of the satellite under development.
Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Monday, October 5, 2015
Those plans are now scuttled, delaying those efforts possibly for several years.
Amos-6 was to mark several more milestones. It was the largest satellite ever built by Israel’s small but advanced space program – and the heaviest payload ever put on a SpaceX rocket. It was valued at over $200 million, and was meant to operate in orbit for 15 years, bringing hard-to-reach areas in 14 countries online.
Its destruction may have dealt a blow to the Israeli space program, delaying new Israeli space efforts planned for commercial markets and possibly putting out of work the Israeli ground staff that was to operate it.
The immediate financial blow to Spacecom, which has sent the five previous “Amos” satellites into space, remains to be seen. The satellite would have brought a dramatic boost to the company’s space-based offerings.
“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,” the company said last year.
There was no immediate word about insurance coverage, but Spacecom’s stock plummeted over 10 percent on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange within two hours of the explosion.
The stock started the day at 4,289.00 shekels, began climbing steadily in anticipation of Saturday’s planned launch of the satellite into space. It reached a high of 4,346.00 in the afternoon before tumbling to a closing price of NIS 3,895.00 after the blast, a 10.4% drop from the day’s pre-explosion high.
The destruction of the satellite could also adversely impact Israeli viewers, Channel 2 reported.
The Yes satellite television company relies on the Amos-2 and Amos-3 satellites to broadcast to subscribers. The destroyed satellite was supposed to replace the older Amos-2, which went into orbit in 2003.
Now reliant on just one satellite, at least in the short term, the company could face a breakdown in transmissions if there are any technical difficulties with the Amos-3. Yes could also be forced to reduce the number of channels it offers, but says it will not remove popular channels.
The explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket, also used by SpaceX at NASA facilities nearby, most recently in a launch in July, also marks the second accident of its kind in the company’s history, and is expected to significantly disrupt its plans for six more launches between September 2016 and January 2017.
“It’s clearly a setback [for SpaceX], but how great the setback is and how long the delay, it’s impossible to know until there is more information available,” said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
A SpaceX update several hours after the explosion said the unexplained “anomaly” that caused the blast “originated around the upper stage oxygen tank” of the rocket “and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle.”
There were no injuries reported from the blast.
CEO Elon Musk also said in a tweet that the blast took place as the rocket was being fueled.
“We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause,” the company said.
Dramatic footage showed a massive explosion and flames engulfing the rocket, followed by several smaller explosions.
The blast occurred at Launch Complex 40 at the Air Force station next door to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Atlantic coast, which is on lease to SpaceX and from which the private space firm has conducted 25 successful launches since 2010.
Buildings several miles away shook from the blast, and multiple explosions continued for several minutes — one right after another. Dark smoke filled the overcast sky. A half-hour later, a black cloud hung low across the eastern horizon.
Kennedy emergency staff were on standby following the explosion. At the same time, personnel were monitoring the air for any toxic fumes. The Air Force stressed there was no threat to public safety in the surrounding communities.
Because the pad was still burning, it remained off-limits to everyone as the afternoon wore on. “We want to make sure we isolate any potential problem,” said Shawn Walleck, a spokesman for the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, “because at this point, we’ve had no casualties, we’ve had no injuries, and we want to keep it that way.”
TV cameras showed smoke coming from the launch pad nearly four hours after the explosion. The rocket was still standing, although the top third or so was clearly bent over.
The initial blast sent next-door NASA employees rushing frantically outside to see what happened. At first, it sounded like lightning, but was followed by the sounds of more explosions, then more and more. The explosions went on for several minutes, according to eyewitnesses.
AFP and AP contributed to this report.