Space is hard. We now have another reminder of this sad fact, as a prototype of SpaceX’s next-gen rocket collapsed in on itself during tests this morning, in what is now the third incident of its kind for the Starship program.
Video of the incident, captured by NASASpaceflight, shows the top portion of the SN3 prototype vehicle losing its structural integrity, causing it to come tumbling down. The failed test happened around 3:00 a.m. ET today (5pm April 5 AEST) at SpaceX’s testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, reports SpaceNews.
The explosion happened as liquid nitrogen was being poured into the rocket’s propellant tanks, according to SpaceNews.
Once it’s developed, SpaceX intends to use the Starship platform to deliver passengers and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars. The rocket will be unlike anything seen before, capable of carrying upwards of 100 passengers. Starship will be a hybrid vehicle, serving as both the second stage of a reusable launch system (a SpaceX Super Heavy will provide the first stage) and as an independent spacecraft.
— LabPadre (@LabPadre) April 3, 2020
This is now the third failed test of a Starship prototype since the project began late last year. On November 20, 2019, the Mk1 prototype blew its top during a cryogenic pressure test. That explosion happened as the rocket was being fuelled with liquid oxygen. And on February 28, 2020, the SN2 prototype exploded at the base, again during a cryogenic pressurization test.
In a tweet, Elon Musk said his team needs to look at the data to figure out what happened, but “this may have been a test configuration mistake.” In an earlier tweet, the SpaceX CEO said “SN3 passed ambient temperature pressure test last night,” prior to the cryogenic tests.
With this latest setback, a static-fire test of Starship SN3 probably won’t go ahead as planned. Nor can we expect a “hop” test any time soon, similar to the ones performed by the Starhopper prototype, which ascended to a height of 150 meters (490 feet) before returning to the surface. It’s also unclear if SpaceX will reach its targeted goal of performing orbital test flights of Starship later this year.
When it comes to failed tests, Musk has shown a tremendous amount of patience. This will have to continue, given the rough start to this ambitious project.