Starship explodes upon landing after spectacular test flight

Rodiano Bonacci
Gennaio 25, 2021

"Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed!"

Musk tweeted moments after the flight, explaining that the velocity of Starship's landing caused the crash.

The Starship rocket destroyed in the accident was a 16-storey-tall prototype for the heavy-lift launch vehicle being developed by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's private space company to carry humans and 100 tons (90.7 tonnes) of cargo on future missions to the Moon and Mars.

Unlike SN8, which was sent tank section only to the launch pad and put through a month of several major tests before a tricky in-situ nosecone installation operation, Starship SN9 was fully assembled at SpaceX's build site.

SpaceX's first high-altitude test flight of its next-generation Starship spacecraft ended in a massive fireball in South Texas after a mission that otherwise went smoothly until the landing, prompting an upbeat reaction from founder Elon Musk. "Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah".

The test flight had been meant to reach an altitude of 12,500 metres, propelled by three of SpaceX's newly developed Raptor engines for the first time. This is the first time this maneuver has been attempted by a vehicle of this size, with SN8 then using its flaps to reorient itself to an upright position ahead of a landing attempt.

As per a Space.com report, Musk was not expecting a complete, end-to-end success of the high-altitude test, which packed in more complexity and variables than any other Starship prototype test of SpaceX's so far. The disastrous end for SpaceX's test flight attempt for SN8 would have been foreseen as bad if it were not for Elon Musk's immediate explanation. SN9 is already almost complete in the high bay facility and Musk has even mentioned on Twitter that big changes are already in mind for test vehicles as far out as SN15.

The test comes following a 24-hour delay incurred when, at T-minus 1 second, an abort was triggered by the vehicles Methane-fueled Raptor engines. Ultimately, enough time remained in the launch window for a full refueling and the test proceeded with only minutes to spare.

SpaceX's Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket (collectively referred to as Starship) represent a fully reusable transportation system created to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. It didn't plummet straight down, oriented vertically, like a Falcon 9 booster would, though.

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