Space industry

SpaceX's Starship Prototype Again Explodes on Landing Attempt After Successful Launch

SpaceX
  • The latest prototype of SpaceX's next-generation Starship rocket launched successfully on Tuesday but exploded on impact during an attempted landing.
  • Starship prototype Serial Number 9, or SN9, aimed to fly as high as 10 kilometers, or about 32,800 feet altitude.
  • While the rocket flew successfully, it hit the ground explosively on its return, just as the SN8 flight did in December.
  • "We had, again, another great flight up ... we've just got to work on that landing a little bit," SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker said.

The latest prototype of SpaceX's next-generation Starship rocket launched successfully on Tuesday but exploded on impact during an attempted landing after a development test flight.

Starship prototype Serial Number 9, or SN9, aimed to fly as high as 10 kilometers, or about 32,800 feet altitude. The flight was similar to the one SpaceX conducted in December, when it launched prototype SN8 on the highest and longest flight to date.

While the rocket flew successfully, it hit the ground explosively on its return, just as the SN8 flight did in December.

"We had, again, another great flight up ... we've just got to work on that landing a little bit," SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker said on the company's webcast of the flight.

Starship prototype rocket SN9 explodes on impact after a high-altitude test flight on Feb. 2, 2021.
SpaceX
Starship prototype rocket SN9 explodes on impact after a high-altitude test flight on Feb. 2, 2021.

The rocket prototypes are built of stainless steel, representing the early versions of the rocket that CEO Elon Musk unveiled last year. The company is developing Starship with the goal of launching cargo and as many as a 100 people at a time on missions to the moon and Mars.

Starship prototype SN9 launches.
SpaceX
Starship prototype SN9 launches.

Musk pivoted the company's attention to Starship in May, after SpaceX successfully launched its first astronaut mission. He's deemed Starship the company's top priority, declaring last year in an email obtained by CNBC that the development program must accelerate "dramatically and immediately."

Although Starship SN9 suffered the same explosive fate as SN8 two months ago, SpaceX views the test flight as a step forward in the rocket's development. SN10, likely the next to attempt a launch-and-landing, was already in place when SN9 took to the skies.

"So all told, another great [flight] -- and a reminder, this is a test flight, the second time we've launched starship in this configuration," Insprucker said. "We've got a lot of good data, and [achieved] the primary objective to demonstrate control of the vehicle and the subsonic reentry."

Starship prototype rockets SN9 (right) and SN10 on launchpads at the company's development facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
SpaceX
Starship prototype rockets SN9 (right) and SN10 on launchpads at the company's development facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

Despite SpaceX's optimism about SN9's flight test, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement to CNBC that it is leading an "investigation of today's landing mishap."

"Although this was an uncrewed test flight, the investigation will identify the root cause of today's mishap and possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops," the FAA said.

The SN9 launch attempt was delayed for about a week as SpaceX worked to get the FAA's permission to launch. Its SN8 flight violated the company's existing Starship license, The Verge first reported and the FAA later confirmed. In a statement to CNBC, the FAA noted that SpaceX "proceeded with the launch without demonstration that the public risk from far field blast overpressure was within the regulatory criteria." The phrase "far field blast overpressure" refers to the effects of an explosion, such as the crash landings of SN8 and SN9.

Musk previously said that Starship could potentially fly people in 2020, but he's since acknowledged that the rocket still has many milestones, including "hundreds of missions," to go before that happens.

Multiple prototypes are being built simultaneously at SpaceX's growing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, with its SN10 rocket already rolled out to a second launchpad nearby. While SpaceX's fleet of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are partially reusable, Musk's goal is to make Starship fully reusable — envisioning a rocket that is more akin to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights where the only major cost is fuel.

Starship prototype SN9 stands on the launchpad at sunset at SpaceX's development facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
SpaceX
Starship prototype SN9 stands on the launchpad at sunset at SpaceX's development facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

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