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SpaceX rocket, Facebook satellite destroyed in explosion

Smoke rises from a SpaceX launch site Thursday at Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA said SpaceX was conducting a test firing of its unmanned rocket when a blast occurred. | Marcia Dunn/Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A massive fireball and explosion erupted Thursday at SpaceX’s main launch pad, destroying a rocket as well as a satellite that Facebook was counting on to spread internet service in Africa.

There were no injuries. The pad had been cleared of workers before what was supposed to be a routine pre-launch rocket test.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk said the accident occurred during the fueling of the rocket and originated around the upper-stage oxygen tank.

“Cause still unknown,” Musk said via Twitter. “More soon.”

The explosion — heard and felt for miles around — dealt a severe blow to SpaceX, still scrambling to catch up with satellite deliveries following a launch accident last year. It’s also a setback for NASA, which has been relying on the private company to keep the International Space Station stocked with supplies and, ultimately, astronauts.

SpaceX was preparing for the test firing of its unmanned Falcon rocket when the blast occurred shortly after 9 a.m. at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The test was in advance of Saturday’s planned launch of an Israeli-made communications satellite that was supposed to provide home internet for parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

A video of the explosion shows a fireball enveloping the top of the rocket. Moments later, the payload fairing plunged to the ground, followed by more explosions.

Buildings four miles away shook from the blast, and a series of explosions continued for several minutes. Dark smoke filled the overcast sky. A half-hour later, a black cloud hung low across the eastern horizon.

Facebook spokesman Chris Norton said his company was “disappointed by the loss, but remain committed to our mission of connecting people to the internet around the world.” Founder Mark Zuckerberg was in Kenya on Thursday, discussing internet access with government officials.

The satellite’s Israeli-based operator, Spacecom, said the loss will have “a significant impact” on the company. Just last November, ground controllers lost contact with the previous satellite in this so-called Amos series. Spacecom said the new satellite was supposed to provide services to television and internet operators.

The Falcon rocket destroyed Thursday is the same kind used to launch space station supplies for NASA. The last such flight took place in July. SpaceX is one of two companies making deliveries. The company also is working on a crew capsule to ferry station U.S. astronauts.