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Falcon 9 upper stage debris lands on Washington farm

Falcon 9 helium pressure tank
Click for full image.

When a Falcon 9 upper stage broke up over the Pacific northwest last week apparently one of its interior helium pressure tanks, used to help push the fuel or oxidizer from the larger tank during launch, fell on a Washington farm and has since been recovered.

The image to the right is that tank, in what appears to be remarkable shape. From the article:

Composite-overwrapped pressure vessels, or COPVs, are standard components in Falcon 9 rockets. They’re designed to hold the helium gas that’s used to pressurize propellant tanks. COPVs are likely candidates to survive re-entry because they’re relatively lightweight and heat-resistant.

The tank has been returned to SpaceX, which I am sure is going to be very interested in studying its condition very thoroughly.


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  • Col Beausabre

    This is the last thing SpacX needs What with the crash of SN11 and now this, there’s gonna be plenty of pressure In DC on the FAA to come down HARD. BTW, Elon, is this debris “in the right place”…..learn to keep your darn fool mouth shut and not make things worse- or as the Arabs put it

    “The mouth is the enemy of the neck”

  • Kevin R.

    It looks in pretty good shape considering the fall.

  • Alex Andrite

    Col B.
    Shall we let the cards fall as they may ?


  • Jay

    Funny, we were talking about that today on the radio since it is a neighboring county. You got to admit that helium tank is pretty tough!

  • Col Beausabre

    Alex, Sorry if my prediction disturbs you. But if you think this won’t negatively impact SpaceX and the private space industry and that Musk came off as a ignorant, out of touch fool,…well, I want the recipe of whatever you are smoking

  • mpthompson

    I have to wonder if the thought “Is that tank is in good enough shape to attempt reuse?” has crossed Musk’s mind.

  • Jeff Wright

    Those pesky COPVs
    One more reason I like pressure feds

  • pzatchok

    Well considering this fell in Washington Sate and not Texas I would guess this will have very little impact on Space X.

    It launched from Kennedy not Boca Chica.

    And if we are scoring debris falling on land I would score Space X quite low compared to ALL the older space craft companies.

    They are still finding shuttle parts spread out all over the south.

    I sort of compare SpaceX to NASA of the 50’s. How many crashes did they have in the 50’s and 60’s?

  • Kind of related … had we ever launched our ICBM’s during the Cold War, the first casualties would have been the properties hit by the lower stages of all those Minuteman missiles … particularly the ones we had “down south” around Whiteman AFB in Missouri, which would have crossed more populated area than the others in the Plains states.

    I guess SAC considered that as acceptable collateral damage, given what would be coming the other way …. I have yet to see any records of discussing that side effect of a deterrence failure.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Jeff Wright,

    Pressure-fed engines require at least as much very-high-pressure bottle mass as pump-fed rockets do because the ullage space in the tanks has to be maintained at a much higher pressure during ascent. Whatever your reasons for liking pressure-fed engines, eliminating COPVs is not a valid one.

    All the ullage pressurant COPVs on an F9 2nd stage are inside the propellant tankage. Their survival during re-entry is, therefore, not surprising as they are not subjected to direct heating until the tankage they are inside burns away during the hottest part of re-entry.

  • Well Col, cannabis *is* legal in WA.

    I do agree that SpaceX has some ‘splainin’ to do and reassurances to make. It doesn’t engender public confidence when you have rockets blowing up and debris raining down. I get the deal, but maybe SpaceX should take a little step back and have a look at their operations and procedures.

    Had not heard that particular aphorism, and like it.

  • David Eastman

    I haven’t heard anything that indicates that this was in any way off-nominal for a 2nd stage re-entry and burnup. It’s just that normally, they are coming in over Africa or Southeast Asia, so nobody really cares. But you can easily find lots of videos of similar light shows, and even occasional bits of debris being found. This one just happened to come in over the US west coast, and so it gets attention. That says something, but not about SpaceX.

  • The difference in treatment between government launches, and private ones, may be that government launches have the implied approval of the populace, and the acceptance of risk. That’s the theory in this country, anyway; maybe not so much in other places. For private companies, there isn’t that implied permission, so they will be held to a different standard than a government operation. This may be a good thing, overall, as it may drive efficiencies (or companies off-shore).

  • wayne

    Can’t readily locate a link, but from what I understood– this was the 2nd stage from the March 4 launch, and there had been some sort of subsequent minor technical glitch afterward which didn’t allow spacex to maintain their usual control over where + when it re-entered.

    A friend of mine in Tigard sent me cell-phone video of the re-entry, his neighbor was out walking his dog when he looked up. From the 20 seconds I saw, I’m surprised anything survived.

    on a tangential note…..

    The DB Cooper Story
    Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305

  • Jay

    I know the general vicinity of where the tank was found. It was a good thing this is the ‘wet’ season, and the farmers are discing the fields. If this would have happened in summer, it would have caused a fire in either farm or scrub lands.

  • James Street

    It appears SpaceX is safe regarding this potential publicity problem. This is getting little local coverage and no national coverage. Maybe because the farmer has completely hidden his identity and location so there’s no human interest aspect, or because liberals don’t care about and are embarrassed by the rural more conservative eastern half of Washington state.

    This one minute video from a Portland Oregon news station has a picture of the relatively minor dent the tank made in the ground. The small town sheriff’s statement at 45 seconds is amazing for his technical understanding of what the tank is.

    Piece of SpaceX rocket debris lands at Washington state farm

  • wayne

    If anyone is interested, I parked a 20 second, cell-phone quality video, of the re-entry, [as seen from Tigard, Oregon] up at the Archive.
    –it’s only uploaded as a ‘test-item,’ which in Archive-speak means the link will expire in 30 days.

    should be here–>

  • Jay

    Thanks for the video. It sounds like the frogs were happy!

    Don’t worry, we conservative, rural Eastern Washingtonians have always been embarrassed by Seattle and Olympia.

  • wayne


    Donald Trump Rally In Lynden, Washington

  • Jeff Wright

    I wonder if the farmer thought to use it as a propane tank…

  • Jeff, at least one of my relatively-recent ancestors, had this dropped in “his” holler’, might have looked into using it in a still … not sure of how well it would work, though.

  • Jay

    It would either be used as an auxiliary fuel tank to hold more diesel for his pickup or attached to his sprayer to hold more anhydrous ammonia. If it fell in Spokane, it would be used to make meth!

  • Jeff Wright

    Those fibers would eat up your hands. Wrap in a horse quilt or concrete. In a book on Atlas-they used manure on field lines to keep them warm next to the LOX pits.

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