SpaceX Starship prototype explodes in fireball landing during test run

10 Dec 2020

Still from ‘Fireball engulfs SpaceX's Starship SN8 rocket’. Image: Guardian News/YouTube

SpaceX founder Elon Musk didn’t seem too disappointed with the news that the company’s Starship prototype exploded on landing.

“Mars, here we come!” was the message proclaimed by SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Twitter immediately after the company’s Starship SN8 prototype craft exploded in a fireball yesterday (9 December). As reported by The Guardian, the spacecraft was taking part in a test flight that intended to send the Starship rocket to 12,500 metres in altitude using, for the first time, three of SpaceX’s latest Raptor engines.

While it has not been revealed what altitude the craft reached, during its attempted landing at SpaceX’s rocket facility in Boca Chica, Texas, the self-guided rocked burst into flames. The 16-storey spacecraft is envisioned by the company as the heavy launch vehicle that could take 100 tonnes of cargo and passengers to the moon or Mars.

On Twitter, Musk gave reasons for the test failure, saying that the rocket’s “fuel header tank pressure was low” during its descent, “causing touchdown velocity to be high”. However, he said that his company had “obtained all the data we need” and declared the mission a success.

To the moon and beyond

The plan was to originally launch the mission on 8 December, but a fault found in one of the Raptor engines forced the mission to be aborted just one second before take-off.

In August, a previous Starship prototype – SN5 – climbed to an altitude of 150 metres above the company’s Texas site before landing safely on the ground near the launchpad. This version was powered by just a single Raptor engine, as opposed to SN8’s three.

NASA previously awarded the private space company $135m to help develop Starship, with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Leidos-owned Dynetics also competing to secure contracts for the US space agency’s Artemis programme.

In October, NASA revealed plans to invest $370m in 14 US companies developing cutting-edge technologies that could be used for the Artemis programme, which aims to return humans to the surface of the moon by 2024.

The space agency recently announced the names of 18 astronauts who will now train for the Artemis programme. Unlike the previous moon landing missions under Apollo, the Artemis programme has an even split between men and women astronauts.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic