On the morning of 1st September 2016, a Falcon-9 rocket designed and manufactured by the aerospace company SpaceX exploded on its launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It was being test-fired in preparation for the planned launch of a communications satellite. Both the launch vehicle and its payload, the $195 million satellite, were destroyed in the blast.1
At the scene of the incident was US Launch Report, a veteran-owned video productions agency which “produces video reports of all things space”. 2 It was their footage of the dramatic incident which ignited a secondary explosion – an explosion of reports that an unidentified flying object had been responsible for the rocket’s destruction.
The cause of these claims was a mysterious object, which enters from the right of the screen and passes above the rocket at the same time as the explosion.
In no time at all, footage of the explosion and the object racked up millions of views online. Conspiracy-minded observers whispered that someone or something had intentionally destroyed the rocket and the satellite it was carrying. Some even hinted at extraterrestrial interference.
In the hours that followed the explosion, SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, stated that the explosion-causing “anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tanks.”3 Their initial statement that the cause of the explosion was “unknown”4 only added fuel to UFO theories.
In the months that followed, sceptical analysts probed the footage for an explanation. Their suggestions that the object was a bug or bird left many unconvinced. The object had been moving too fast. The object appeared shiny. And, unlike other insect-like objects visible at the start of the video, the object in question seemed to move in a perfectly straight line, traveling behind the rocket relative to the camera, and therefore proving to be both larger and moving much more quickly than any bugs or birds in the foreground. And certainly, when one watches the footage carefully, it does appear as though the anomalous object passes behind the left-most tower on the launch pad.
Sceptics have pointed out that, whilst we cannot “know for sure what this object is”, that the video was captured using a telephoto lens adds to the challenge of questioning the footage scientifically. The further the zoom, the greater the risk for distortion of an object’s perceived speed and distance. Add in video compression and increased pixelation, and you are navigating a minefield of uncertainty. 5
In the months after the explosion SpaceX conducted further investigations as to the cause of the incident. In their press release they claimed to have identified a “problem” with the supercooled oxygen onboard.6 Yet, due to the difficulty of positively identifying the object in the footage, many remain convinced that it was the cause of the explosion. Whatever the case may be, without the ability to scrutinise the footage further, the object in question remains unidentified.
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