NASA officials say a contaminant, a type of oily residue, has been detected in the unpressurized portion or the trunk of the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The concern is that if this oil were to vaporize in space, it could contaminate a costly experiment that uses expensive and delicate optics.
The experiment, called Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS, is one of 150 experiments that were supposed to launch to the International Space Station this weekend as part of a $1.5 billion dollar contract with SpaceX.
On Thursday, the launch was canceled when this mysterious oily residue was discovered on the thermal blanket that is used to protect the OPALS experiment inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The launch was originally set for March 16.
SpaceX has yet to determine what the substance is, or how it got there, but the concern is that it could vaporize and get into the optics or "eyes" of OPALS, which includes a powerful prototype laser critical to the success of the experiment. OPALS will test high speed communications using this prototype laser.
To clean up the rocket, SpaceX is going to have to de-stack a portion of the assembled spacecraft -- basically, take the capsule off the top of the Falcon 9 rocket -- pull the experiment out and clean off this residue, as well as try to figure out how it got there.
This is expected to take some time, and NASA officials say they do not expect to launch any sooner than the end of March.