(NEWS INVESTIGATORS) SpaceX’s Starship rocket prototype exploded in flames as it made a vertical landing on Wednesday, minutes after what seemed to be an uneventful test launch from the company’s testing site on the coast of Texas.
The Starship rocket destroyed was the prototype for a heavy-lift launch vehicle that Elon Musk’s private space company hopes will carry people – and cargo – on future missions to the Moon and Mars.
The self-guided rocket blew up as it touched down on a landing pad following a controlled descent. The test flight had been intended to reach an altitude of 41,000 feet (12,500 metres), propelled by three of SpaceX’s newly developed Raptor engines for the first time.
Musk said in a tweet immediately following the accident that the rocket’s “fuel header tank pressure was low” during descent, which caused “touchdown velocity to be high.”
The test launch took off and ascended in a seemingly straight line, before one and then another of its engines stopped. After four minutes and 45 seconds of flight, its third engine extinguished and the rocket began its descent in its expected position.
The engines were restarted just seconds before landing in an effort to slow the ship, but it crashed hard into the Earth.
SpaceX has successfully blasted smaller prototypes several hundred metres into the air for less than a minute.
The latest flight was livestreamed on the @SpaceX Twitter account and aimed to check the metal body of SN8 (Starship number 8 ) and its three engines for their aerodynamism, including during the ship’s return to Earth – which takes place vertically, in the same vein as SpaceX’s pioneering Falcon 9 rocket.
“With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances development of Starship,” a statement on the company’s website said, implying even before the launch that an explosion or crash would not mean a failed mission.
Construction of the SN9, the next prototype, is already almost finished.
The experimental flights are taking place in Boca Chica on the Gulf of Mexico near the border with Mexico. Musk recently announced he plans to move to Texas from California.
Musk hopes to be able to one day launch several of space ships to Mars, although they could prove useful even in the short term as NASA eyes re-establishing an ongoing presence on the Moon in 2024.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is currently scheduled to pay an undisclosed sum to take Starship around the Moon possibly as early as 2023.