SpaceX’s latest test of their prototype Starship upper stage came to an exciting and unfortunately familiar end earlier today, when the rocket exploded as it attempted SpaceX’ signature and impressive vertical landing. The last three Starship hop-and-land tests have all ended with the rocket prototype exploding in a huge fireball. Space is hard! Blowing up rockets is part of the process. A process SpaceX is getting very good at.
These Starship tests have been hop-and-land tests, where the rocket is launched to an altitude of about 10 kilometers, and then it executes a “belly flop” manoeuvre where it rotates to be parallel to the horizon, then returns upright, and begins a controlled descent to attempt to land on its set of landing legs.
These prototype Starships have been equipped with three Raptor engines, which can only be throttled down to about 40 per cent; as a result, engines are cut off at various points to reduce thrust, with the rocket landing with only one engine active.
Of the prior three tests only one, SN10, landed successfully, though it did explode almost immediately after landing, which is still something of an issue.
Here’s the video of the SN11 test; video was lost during decent, but you can hear the BOOM of the explosion.
The fog was unusually thick at the launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, making visibility pretty terrible.
At this point exactly what went wrong is not known, though the explosion did manage to send debris flying as far as five miles away from the launchpad, which is impressive in its own way.
Elon Musk, the reclusive, barely known CEO of SpaceX even managed to have a pretty good line about the explosion, noting that at least it exploded in the right spot:
At least the crater is in the right place!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021
An unintended side effect of the explosion also seems to be that well-known space YouTuber Everyday Astronaut may have lost a lot of expensive camera equipment in the blast. Sorry to hear that!
One of the goals of Starship is to develop a re-usable launcher as a way to significantly reduce the cost of launching things into orbit (or beyond). That’d be great, but first SpaceX need to keep them from exploding, usually considered a significant hinderance to re-usability.
There’s already a lunar-orbiting flight for Starship planned for 2023; I’m not really confident they’ll make that date, but I do think it’ll get there, eventually.
Oh, and as a reminder to the Elonians who always come out for posts about SpaceX or Tesla, I feel like I should make a few points clear:
1. I’d love to see Starship actually work
2. I understand a lot of important data can be collected from failure
3. Exploding rockets are almost always newsworthy, and will get reported on.
Hope that helps.