SpaceX finally launched a prototype of its Starship rocket miles into the air on Wednesday, then landed it successfully. But 10 minutes later the rocket exploded.
The approximately 16-story test vehicle – called Starship serial number 10 or SN10 – came out at 5:14 p.m. Wednesday. As he climbed, he turned off one engine and then another. The rocket remained at the peak of its flight for about 30 seconds, then cut off its last engine, overturned and slid to the ground.
As it approached the ground, the Raptor’s engines restarted, turned the SN10 upright, and slowly lowered it to the landing pad.
“The third time is the charm, as they say,”
But fire continued around the skirt of the rocket. Then, about 10 minutes later, the explosion pushed the SN10 back into the air, leaving it in pieces.
SPadre.com filmed the incident from a camera on top of a building about 9 miles away:
The prototype’s predecessors, SN8 and SN9, performed similar flights at high altitude, but shook their landings. Everyone crashed into the landing pad and immediately blew up. Yet these flights – and this one – demonstrated that Starship could rocket to high altitudes and control its plumb line back to Earth. On Wednesday, SN10 showed that it can land on the ground in one piece – at least initially.
Two-component, fully usable launch system
SpaceX broadcast the test flight, which you can watch in the YouTube video below, minus the delayed explosion.
To begin with, the three truck-sized Raptor engines exploded, lifted him off the ground and hummed past the launch site at SpaceX’s facilities in Boca Chica, a remote strip of land in southeast Texas. After he began his descent, two aerodynamic wings on the wing of the rocket’s nose cone and two at its base – controlled by an on-board computer – moved independently to control the fall of the SN10 and maintain its abdominal position.
The SN10 is the upper stage of a system designed to have two parts: An approximately 23-story booster called the Super Heavy will one day lift the Starship spacecraft into orbit.
If it works, the Starship-Super Heavy launch system could reduce the cost of reaching space by 1,000 times, as it would eliminate the need to build new rockets and spacecraft for each space flight. Musk wants to build a fleet of reusable spacecraft to power hypersonic travel around the world, fly astronauts to the moon and one day transport humans to Mars.
Possible flight to low Earth orbit
Once SpaceX understands how Starship can trigger its launch and landing, the company will want to launch a prototype into orbit to test its ability to re-enter the 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 an in-depth environmental assessment. Depending on the findings of this assessment, SpaceX may need to make a new environmental impact statement, which can take up to three years.
Complicating matters is the ongoing FAA project received by Insider, which reveals that SpaceX plans to dig natural gas wells and build gas-fired power plants in Boca Chica. Such plans could extend SpaceX’s environmental review process.
Musk and the FAA have clashed in the past: SpaceX launched its first high-altitude spacecraft flight, the SN8 prototype, without FAA approval, prompting an investigation.
This investigation is still ongoing, as is another investigation into the causes of the SN8’s explosive landing, at a time when SpaceX wanted to release its next Starship prototype, the SN9. In January, SpaceX announced that SN9 was about to fly. But as the rocket sat ready on the launch pad, the FAA suddenly pulled the airspace closure, making way for the rocket’s path. There was no launch that day.
In response to the delay, Musk confronted the FAA on Twitter, saying his space unit had a “fundamentally disrupted regulatory structure” and that “humanity will never reach Mars” under its rules.
The following week, the FAA approved updates to the SN9 launch license and gave the green light to SpaceX. The rocket jumped and crashed, like its predecessor.
Musk says he is “very confident” that SpaceX will launch a twisted spacecraft to Mars in 2024, followed by a crew mission in 2026.