It appears that SpaceX just can't stick the landing.
In its fourth test of its Starship — which CEO Elon Musk hopes will take humans to the moon or Mars in the near future — the 50-metre rocket dubbed SN11, or serial number 11, exploded.
However, it's unclear exactly what happened.
The launch occurred through thick fog at the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, Texas, making it impossible to see anything but a bright glow when the rocket launched.
Even the SpaceX cameras aboard SN11 didn't work as well as normal, with the feed dropping out for most of the test launch.
Debris rained from sky
The rocket successfully reached a planned altitude of 10 kilometres. It then began its descent, a move dubbed the "belly flop."
However, a few seconds after its engines fired to put the rocket in a vertical position, a loud boom was heard and debris was seen raining from the sky.
Final view of SN11 in the air:<br><br>➡️<a href="https://t.co/Q2p3q1HS0i">https://t.co/Q2p3q1HS0i</a> <a href="https://t.co/PNJta9svkA">pic.twitter.com/PNJta9svkA</a>
"Looks like we've had another exciting test of Starship Number 11," said John Insprucker, launch commentator for SpaceX, during the live broadcast.
Shortly after the botched landing, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted, "Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn't reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn't needed. Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today."
Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn’t needed. <br><br>Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.
SpaceX is launching its prototypes in quick succession, with the hope that it will eventually have a successful launch and landing. The closest success it had was with its SN10 on March 3, which landed but then exploded almost 10 minutes later on the pad.
Musk also tweeted that the next Starship, SN15, will be moved out to the launch pad some time next week in preparation for its test.
"SN15 rolls to launch pad in a few days. It has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software & engine. Hopefully, one of those improvements covers this problem. If not, then retrofit will add a few more days."
Next major technology rev is at SN20. Those ships will be orbit-capable with heat shield & stage separation system. Ascent success probability is high.<br><br>However, SN20+ vehicles will probably need many flight attempts to survive Mach 25 entry heating & land intact.
Booster to undergo tests
Eventually, the second part of the rocket, the Super Heavy booster, will also undergo tests.
The first prototype — referred to by its serial number BN1 — is already in a high bay on site, though Musk tweeted Tuesday that it will be scrapped and BN2 — with new upgrades — may head to the launch pad by the end of April.
Once Starship and the Super Heavy are paired, it will stand 120 metres, taller than the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon.
SpaceX already has its first private passenger, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. Maezawa has launched a search for eight people to join him on the trip around the moon, which will be on Starship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.
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