SpaceX Starship explodes whilst attempting to land during test
When SpaceX unveiled the Starship concept in 2012, CEO Elon Musk promised to build a rocket capable of ferrying humans to and from Mars. Originally dubbed the Mars Colonial Transporter or MCT, the spacecraft has gone through numerous design and name changes before SpaceX settle on a sleek, stainless steel rocket that might one day carry up to 100 astronauts. Development of the Starship kicked off in earnest in 2018 with the bulk of the work carried out at SpaceX’s facilities in Boca Chica, south Texas.
Since then, SpaceX has been building scaled-down prototypes and test rockets dubbed Mk1 through to Mk4, and SN1 through to SN8.
Seven of the 13 prototypes so far have been destroyed, some spectacularly going up in flames during static fires and tank pressure tests.
The last Starship prototype to meet its fiery demise was the SN8 which blew up after its first major test flight on December 9, local time.
Starship SN8 was the first prototype to launch with a nosecone, reaching an altitude of 41,000ft (12.5km).
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Propelled by three Raptor engines, the rocket then flipped to its side and plummetted to the ground in free fall – a manoeuvre dubbed “the belly flop”.
Just before SN8 reached the ground, it flipped upright again and fired its engines in a bid to decelerate enough for a smooth landing.
Instead, the rocket failed to slow down enough and went up in a ball of flames.
At first glance, it might appear as though the explosive crash landing will throw a spanner in the works for the Starship programme.
But according to Dr Hugh Grant, a reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge, the explosion was anything but a disaster.
Dr Grant said: “Its short flight attracted a great deal of attention for its final few seconds before landing – when it exploded.
“But consider the near-perfect totality of its six-and-a-half-minute flight.
“Look at the groundbreaking technology and manoeuvres involved.
“It is reasonable to view this as a hugely successful test.”
Going into the SN8 test flight, Mr Musk candidly spoke about the prototype’s low chance of success.
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Tweeting about the flight in November, he said there was only a one-in-three chance the rocket would land in one piece.
He then added: “But that’s why we have SN9 and SN10.”
The Starship explosion can be considered a massive success for SpaceX because it provided the company with valuable data on how to improve consecutive prototypes and test launches.
Starship also demonstrated the feasibility of the belly flop as a way of slowing down in the atmosphere.
As the rocket falls to the ground, it is only guided by four flaps on its sides – like a skydiver only using their arms and legs – and uses friction to slow down.
Dr Grant, who wrote for The Conversation, said: “SpaceX will have gathered flight data that allows it to know how the aerodynamics of a belly-flop work.
“In particular, it will know how well the flaps work and how precisely to keep the craft stable and land it on target.
“We can see on the videos released by SpaceX that the flaps are under good control. This looks like great news for SpaceX.”
Mr Musk was similarly thrilled by the outcome of the test flight, tweeting: “Mars, here we come!! Thank you, South Texas for your support! This is the gateway to Mars.”
But the clock is ticking as the SpaceX chief has said he wants to get boots on Mars as early as 2026.
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