SpaceX’s latest altitude test of its Starship rocket ended in disaster, when the craft burst into flames as it attempted to land. However, the company hailed the test flight as a success.
SN8 successfully launched from SpaceX’s Cameron County launch pad in Texas, US, at around 5:45pm (EST). The six-and-a-half minute test flight sent the full-scale, stainless steel model — 50 metres tall and nine metres in diameter — soaring out over the Gulf of Mexico. The flight saw SN8 lift off; successfully ascend; transition the propellant, and perform the necessary landing flip manoeuvre with precise flap control to reach its landing point.
At its apogee, SN8 achieved the highest flight yet for SpaceX’s rocket design and completed more tasks than its predecessors, some of which had disintegrated without ever leaving the ground during basic tests that simply pumped ultracold liquid propellants into the rocket’s tanks.
In a post on SpaceX’s official website, the company attributed the explosion of SN8 to “low pressure in the fuel header tank during the landing burn [which] led to high touchdown velocity resulting in a hard (and exciting!) landing”.
Essentially, SN8 hit the ground too fast and exploded. The rocket had performed its prior manoeuvres successfully, including tipping over into a controlled glide back to Earth. As it neared the ground, the spaceship righted itself to a vertical orientation and fired its three Raptor engines in order to slow its descent. However, this proved insufficient and upon impact it disintegrated in a gigantic fireball. The whole flight lasted approximately 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
SN8 was the first prototype equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines. Its flight ambition was to reach an altitude of up to eight miles (12.5km) – almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere.
SpaceX broadcast the launch and landing live on its website; repeated delays over the past week and a last-second engine abort on Tuesday had heightened excitement among space fans. “Awesome test. Congratulations Starship team!”, a scrolling message read across the screen.
Musk – now the world’s second-richest person – put out a series of tweets about the launch, writing: “Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!”
Addressing the explosion, Musk wrote: “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!”
Acknowledging the success of the mission, in spite of the fiery end, he said: “Yeah, engines did great! SN8 did great! Even reaching apogee would’ve been great, so controlling all way to putting the crater in the right spot was epic!!”
Musk had previously kept expectations low ahead of this first high-altitude attempt by Starship, suggesting that there was “probably” only a one-in-three chance of complete success. SpaceX is already preparing for its next launch, with rocket SN9 (pictured above) up next: “Mars, here we come!”, the company posted on its website.
SpaceX has become successful in the launch business and is now the world’s most valuable privately held company. Its Falcon 9 rockets have become a dominant workhorse for sending satellites to orbit and it routinely transports cargo to the International Space Station. As part of its partnership with Nasa, SpaceX has already taken astronauts to the ISS twice this year, with more trips planned in 2021.
However, space experts remain sceptical about Musk’s claims that the company is only a few years away from sending a Starship to Mars. As the flaming fate of SN8 illustrates, SpaceX appears to still be some distance away from sending astronauts to the Red Planet.
SpaceX’s financial future seems much more assured. On top of its launch work for Nasa and other space agencies, it pocketed a lucrative $149m (£114.8m) contract award in October to build missile-tracking satellites for the Pentagon.
It also has its Starlink service, which will provide broadband internet using a constellation of satellites. This week, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) awarded SpaceX $885m (£640m) in funding for this service.