SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has finally revealed the cause of last week’s Starship SN11 malfunction after the prototype exploded into a massive fireball during a test flight on March 30.
In a test flight that departed from SpaceX’s South Texas facility, the SN11 reached a maximum altitude of 10km – as planned – and continued to tick off boxes during its descent. However, the prototype failed to stick the landing and exploded into a ball of flames, unfortunately suffering a similar fate to its three predecessors.
As a result of poor visibility and malfunctioning cameras, the reason for the explosion wasn’t immediately clear, with SpaceX simply confirming that the vehicle “experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly.” But just a week after the initial test flight, Musk himself has taken to social media to offer some answers.
After clarifying that the prototype cleared the “ascent phase, transition to horizontal and control during free fall”, Musk explained that the explosion was the result of a fuel leak onboard.
“A (relatively) small CH4 [methane] leak led to fire on engine 2 and fried part of avionics, causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump,” he tweeted on Monday.
Ascent phase, transition to horizontal & control during free fall were good.
A (relatively) small CH4 leak led to fire on engine 2 & fried part of avionics, causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump.
This is getting fixed 6 ways to Sunday.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 5, 2021
“This is getting fixed 6 ways to Sunday,” he added.
In an incredibly on-brand move for Musk, this important announcement was casually dropped in the replies of a tweet about, you guessed it, Godzilla vs Kong.
Godzilla vs Kong is so amaze much wow!
Most insane movie I’ve ever seen!
Love letter to conspiracy theorists!
And yet heartwarming in the end.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 5, 2021
The SN11 explosion is the fourth Starship prototype in a row that SpaceX has lost since they began high-altitude test flights back in December.
Interestingly, all four of the test flights suffered a similar demise with each prototype performing well until the very end.
The first two prototypes, the SN8 and SN9, both exploded on impact as a result of a hard landing. Meanwhile, the SN10 managed to stick the landing, only to explode on the landing pad a few minutes later.
However, it looks like the SN11 is the first prototype to explode before landing.
Following the explosion of the SN11, SpaceX will jump straight to the SN15 prototype, which reportedly features a number of upgrades that will hopefully prevent similar malfunctions.
“It has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software & engine,” Musk tweeted last week, confirming that the SN12, SN13 and SN14 prototypes have been effectively binned.
“Hopefully, one of those improvements covers this problem (with SN11). If not, then retrofit will add a few more days.”
SN15 rolls to launch pad in a few days. It has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software & engine.
Hopefully, one of those improvements covers this problem. If not, then retrofit will add a few more days.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021
The SN15 is already built and is being prepared for pre-flight testing in the hope that it will survive the landing and be the first step towards the company’s first Starship orbital test flight, which should kick-off as early as June.
SpaceX is developing the Starship vehicle to eventually replace the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule as the company’s primary rocket and crew/cargo transporter. Unlike other rockets, the Starship will be fully reusable in an effort to minimise launch costs.
However, the company will have to stick the landing before Elon Musk will take us all on a field trip to the moon.