SpaceX finally launched a prototype of its Starship rocket miles into the air on Wednesday and then landed it successfully. But 10 minutes later the rocket exploded.
The approximately 16-storey test vehicle – called Starship serial no. 10 or SN10 – lifted off at. 17:14 Wednesday. As it climbed, it turned off one engine and then another. The rocket hovered on top of its flight for about 30 seconds, then cut off its last engine, overturned and bowed to the ground.
As it approached the ground, the Raptor engines repeated themselves, turning the SN10 upright and slowly lowering it down to the landing plate.
“The third time is the charm, as they say,”
But a fire persisted around the rocket’s skirt. Then approx. 10 minutes later an explosion threw SN10 back into the air, leaving it in pieces.
SPadre.com captured the incident from a camera on top of a building about 10 km away:
The prototype’s predecessors, SN8 and SN9, completed similar high-altitude flights, but flubbed their landings. They slammed each into the landing plate and exploded immediately. Yet these flights – and this one – demonstrated that Starship could rocket to high altitudes and steer its plunge back to Earth. On Wednesday, SN10 showed that it can also land on the ground for a while – at least in the beginning.
A 2-part, fully reusable launch system
SpaceX aired the test flight, as you can see in the YouTube video below minus the delayed explosion.
Initially, Starship’s three truck-sized Raptor engines roared to life, lifting off the ground and rumbling past the launch pad at SpaceX’s facilities in Boca Chica, a distant strip of land in southeast Texas. After beginning its descent, two aerodynamic wing flaps at the rocket’s nose cone and two at the base – operated by a built-in computer – moved independently to control the SN10’s fall and maintain its belly-flop position.
SN10 is the top phase of a system designed to have two parts: An approx. A 23-story booster called the Super Heavy would one day lift the Starship spaceship into orbit.
If it works, the Starship-Super Heavy launch system could reduce the cost of reaching space 1000 times, as it would eliminate the need to build new rockets and spaceships for each spaceflight. Musk wants to construct a fleet of reusable spaceships to drive hypersonic travel around the world, fly astronauts to the moon and one day carry people to Mars.
A possible flight to a runway with low ground
Once SpaceX has figured out how Starship can nail its launch and landing, the company will want to rocket a prototype into orbit to test its ability to recapture Earth’s atmosphere. This will require a new type of launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, but obtaining it involves removing many regulatory barriers, including a thorough environmental assessment. Depending on the results of this assessment, it is possible that SpaceX may have to make a new environmental impact statement, which may take up to three years.
Complicating matters is a leaked FAA draft document obtained by Insider, which revealed that SpaceX is planning to dig natural gas wells and build gas-fired power plants in Boca Chica. Such plans may extend SpaceX’s environmental evaluation process.
Musk and FAA have clashed in the past: SpaceX launched its first high-altitude Starship flight, the SN8 prototype, without FAA approval, triggering an investigation.
This investigation was still ongoing, as was another investigation into the causes of SN8’s explosive landing, at the time SpaceX wanted to launch its next Starship prototype, the SN9. In January, SpaceX announced that the SN9 was about to fly. But as the rocket sat ready on the launch pad, the FAA suddenly pulled the airspace shutdown, making room for the rocket’s path. There was no launch that day.
In response to the delay, Musk ran against the FAA on Twitter, saying its space division had “a fundamentally broken regulatory structure” and that “humanity will never come to Mars” according to its rules.
The following week, the FAA approved the SN9 launch license updates and gave SpaceX the green light. The rocket rose sharply and crashed, like its predecessor.
Musk says he is “very confident” that SpaceX will launch an unmanned Starship to Mars in 2024, followed by a crew mission in 2026.