SpaceX successfully launched its next-generation Starship rocket on Wednesday in its first-ever high-altitude test. The landing, however, wasn’t so great.
Powered by three Raptor engines, the uncrewed Starship SN8 prototype soared into the sky from the SpaceX test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, late in the afternoon Eastern Time.
As planned, the vehicle reached an altitude of around 40,000 feet before its engines cut out so that it could begin its descent. After performing an intended “landing flip” maneuver in midair, the rocket’s engines fired up again to slow its descent as it came in to land back at the launch site just over six minutes after liftoff.
But its speed of descent was too fast, and the prototype exploded in a fireball as it hit the ground harder than expected. No one at the facility was hurt.
Despite the prototype’s unfortunate ending, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was clearly delighted with the effort, tweeting: “We got all the data we needed!” adding, “Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!”
Explaining why the vehicle had crashed and burned, Musk tweeted: “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD [rapid unscheduled disassembly].”
Once the Starship technology is deemed ready, SpaceX aims to launch the spacecraft — which also acts as a second-stage booster — atop the massive first-stage Super Heavy rocket, which is powered by 31 Raptor engines.
The ultimate aim is to use the Starship and Super Heavy rocket as a fully reusable space transportation system capable of carrying as many as 100 people and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars, and possibly beyond.
Indeed, following the test, Musk tweeted, “Mars here we come!” and “This is the gateway to Mars.” In October, the SpaceX chief said that an uncrewed round trip to Mars could take place as soon as 2024. It will be interesting to learn if he has a new date in mind following this week’s test.
Prior to Wednesday’s high-altitude flight, more basic Starship prototypes had performed a number of pressure tests, as well as so-called “hop” tests that sent the vehicle a few hundred feet into the air before landing back on the ground — each with varying degrees of success.
As for Wednesday’s effort, SpaceX is clearly chalking it up as a win as it continues to refine the technology ahead of the ambitious missions to come.
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