‘Successful’ Starship test flight ends in explosion

A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft has exploded on landing following a test flight that was otherwise described as ‘successful’ by CEO Elon Musk.

The Starship system includes the Starship vehicle itself – designed to one day take humans to the Moon and Mars – alongside SpaceX’s Super Heavy rocket. According to the company, it will be the most powerful launch system ever developed, standing at 120m and capable of lifting more than 100 metric tonnes into Earth orbit.

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At 22.45 UK time on December 9th, the 50m SN8 prototype launched without the assistance of the 70m Super Heavy from SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility in Cameron County, South Texas. Powered by three of the company’s Raptor engines, the vehicle was due to hit a height of 12,500m before returning to Earth. While it is unclear whether the SN8 achieved this height, Musk claimed on Twitter that there had been a “successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!”

Video footage showed the SN8’s six and half minute test flight ending abruptly, however, with the Starship prototype landing at speed before exploding in a large fireball. According to the SpaceX CEO, the hot landing was the result of low pressure in one of the fuel tanks.

“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.  “Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!”

In a subsequent tweet just moments later, Musk simply declared “Mars, here we come!!”

The SN8 marked the first time more than a single Raptor engine had been flown on a Starship test flight. The methalox staged-combustion engine began flight testing on Starship prototypes in July 2019, becoming the first full-flow staged combustion rocket engine ever flown. On the completed Starship launch system, about 30 Raptor engines will power the Super Heavy rocket, with the Starship vehicle itself having an additional six.