(Reuters) -An uncrewed SpaceX Starship prototype rocket failed to land safely on Tuesday after a test launch from Boca Chica, Texas, and engineers were investigating, SpaceX said.
“We do appear to have lost all the data from the vehicle,” SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said in a webcast video of the rocket’s flight test. “We’re going to have to find out from the team what happened.”
The webcast view was obscured by fog, making it difficult to see the vehicle’s landing. Debris from the spacecraft was found scattered five miles (eight km) away from its landing site.
The Starship was one in a series of prototypes for the heavy-lift rocket being developed by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private space company to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars.
The complete Starship rocket, which will stand 394 feet (120 metres) tall with its super-heavy first-stage booster included, is SpaceX’s next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle – the center of Musk’s ambitions to make human space travel more affordable and routine.
A first orbital Starship flight is planned for year’s end. Musk, who also heads the electric carmaker Tesla Inc, has said he intends to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon in the Starship in 2023.
Starships SN8 and SN9 previously exploded upon landing during their test runs. SN10 achieved an upright landing earlier this month, but then went up in flames about eight minutes after touchdown.
“Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn’t needed,” Musk tweeted on Tuesday, after SN11’s test flight. “Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.”
The new management anticipates offering a commercial service this autumn to northern latitudes – including Britain, Northern Europe, Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Arctic Seas – with a full global roll-out of connectivity in mid-2022.
“We have what we call ‘five to 50’ (degrees latitude). So, that’s five launches we need to do in order to get to this coverage of basically the south coast of the UK to the North Pole,” explained chief executive Neil Masterson.
“By the end of June we will have completed those launches to enable us to be providing our service. But in total this year, we expect to be doing somewhere between eight and 10 launches,” he told BBC News.
Mr Masterson, formerly the co-chief operating officer at business information provider Thomson Reuters, was brought into OneWeb when it emerged from “Chapter 11” bankruptcy protection in November.
There has been an intense period of hires, with more than 200 employees joining the books since the autumn.
Supply chains have also had to be re-established, allowing OneWeb Satellites, the joint venture with Airbus, to resume full-volume manufacturing at its factory in Florida.
And all this has required extra funding, of course.
OneWeb announced in January it had raised a further $400m from tech investor Softbank and satellite services specialist Hughes Network Systems. But this still leaves OneWeb short of about $1bn to finish the set-up of its first-generation constellation of 648 satellites.
Those spacecraft also need an array of supporting ground stations dotted around the globe.
“We need one more ground station to fully support commercial service in the areas mentioned by the end of this year,” the chief executive said.
“We know where it’s going to be. Covid makes it a little bit more tricky, but I think we feel confident at this stage, we’ll get it done.”
OneWeb says its testing programme is progressing well, and in a demonstration this month for the US Department of Defense claimed its satellites were providing downlink data rates of up to 500 megabits per second with a delay, or latency, in the internet connections as low as 32 milliseconds.
OneWeb’s chief competitor in the internet mega-constellation business is Starlink, which is being set up by the Californian rocket company SpaceX.
Starlink, which has 1,320 satellites in orbit now after another launch on Wednesday (the architecture of its network requires more satellites than OneWeb) has already begun beta testing with high-latitude customers.
The two projects are, though, following quite different business models.
OneWeb will be working with partner telecommunications companies to deliver its broadband offering, whereas Starlink will be selling a big chunk of its bandwidth direct to the consumer.
Some way behind both OneWeb and Starlink are Lightspeed and Kuiper.
Lightspeed is the broadband mega-constellation being developed by the long-established Canadian satellite communications company Telesat. This system has only just selected a spacecraft manufacturer in the Franco-Italian aerospace company Thales Alenia Space. The first of Lightspeed’s 298 satellites won’t launch for another two years.
Kuiper is a subsidiary of online retailer Amazon. Like Starlink, the Kuiper constellation will comprise several thousand satellites but details of a launch schedule have not been released.
In the UK, the government’s purchase of a stake in OneWeb has been controversial, especially with an early suggestion that the constellation could be fashioned into some sort replacement for the EU’s Galileo navigation system which Britain no longer has a stake in after Brexit.
It was confirmed this week that OneWeb has answered the Request for Information now being run in government to find solutions to the country’s needs for precise Positioning, Navigation and Timing, or PNT.
But this is likely, certainly in the short term, to take the form of resilience support. In other words, using OneWeb to bolster the signals coming from Galileo and its American counterpart, GPS.
Mr Masterson says his team are thinking about the services they could offer in the future, especially when OneWeb introduces a second generation of spacecraft – the manufacture of which will have a lot more British involvement.
Carissa Christensen, the chief executive of consultancy Bryce Space and Technology, discussed OneWeb on a recent edition of the BBC’s Bottom Line business programme.
She said: “The UK has targeted space as a driver of economic growth. OneWeb is in a very exclusive club with regard to space capabilities and space activities, and so for me there’s some alignment in that decision to become an investor in OneWeb with that vision of space driving a post-Brexit UK economic boom.
“I don’t want to overstate that as saying, ‘clearly that’s going to work’. But it’s taking on an opportunity and it’s a bold decision.”
The next launch window for a NASA crew to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocketship has been pushed back by at least another two days, to no earlier than April 22, the space agency said.
SpaceX, the private rocket company of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, was previously scheduled to carry its second “operational” space station team into orbit for NASA in late March. But NASA announced in January that the target date had slipped to April 20.
The schedule was adjusted again on the basis of available flight times to the space station, driven by orbital mechanics, that would keep the astronauts’ need for sleep shifting to a minimum, NASA spokesman Dan Huot said on Tuesday.
The flight marks only the second full-fledged space station crew-rotation mission launched aboard a privately owned spacecraft – a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket tipped with the Crew Dragon capsule it will carry into orbit.
The four-member SpaceX Crew-2 consists of two NASA astronauts, mission commander Shane Kimbrough and pilot Megan McArthur, along with Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and fellow mission specialist Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency.
After docking with the space station, they will join the four SpaceX Crew-1 astronauts who arrived in November, and cosmonauts carried to the orbiting outpost aboard a Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft.
The newly arrived Crew-2 are to remain in orbit six months, while Crew-1 is due to return to earth by early May.
McArthur will become the second person from her family to ride a Crew Dragon into space. Her husband, Bob Behnken, was one of two NASA astronauts on the very first manned Crew Dragon launch, a trial flight last August marking NASA’s first human orbital mission from U.S. soil in nine years, following the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
The third time appeared to be the charm for Elon Musk’s Starship rocket – until it wasn’t.
The latest heavy-duty launch vehicle prototype from SpaceX soared flawlessly into the sky in a high-altitude test blast-off on Wednesday from Boca Chica, Texas, then flew itself back to Earth to achieve the first upright landing for a Starship model.
But the triumph was short-lived. Listing slightly to one side as an automated fire-suppression system trained a stream of water on flames still burning at the base of the rocket, the spacecraft blew itself to pieces about eight minutes after touchdown.
It was the third such landing attempt to end in a fireball after an otherwise successful test flight for the Starship, being developed by SpaceX to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars.
For Musk, the billionaire SpaceX founder who also heads the electric carmaker Tesla Inc, the outcome was mixed news.
The Starship SN10 came far closer to achieving a safe, vertical touchdown than two previous models – SN8 in December and SN9 in February. In a tweet responding to tempered congratulations from an admirer of his work, Musk replied, “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”
The video feed provided by SpaceX on the company’s YouTube channel cut off moments after the landing. But separate fan feeds streamed over the same social media platform showed an explosion suddenly erupting at the base of the rocket, hurling the SN10 into the air before it crashed to the ground and became engulfed in flames.
The complete Starship rocket, which will stand 394-feet (120 metres) tall when mated with its super-heavy first-stage booster, is SpaceX’s next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle – the center of Musk’s ambitions to make human space travel more affordable and routine.
A first orbital Starship flight is planned for year’s end. Musk has said he intends to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with the Starship in 2023.
Michael Cervenka traces his interest in engineering back to his grandfather’s influence.
“He was an organ builder and had me sorting out screws on his workshop floor when I was 18 months old,” he says.
That interest literally took off. He is now the boss of Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace, and has progressed to electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) machines.
With the potential to be quiet and economical, these aircraft have been touted as the next big thing in passenger aircraft.
Vertical is working on the VA-1X, an aircraft intended to fly between regions. That regional emphasis matters as eVTOL machines have often been promoted as air taxis, whizzing around our cities under the banner of “urban air mobility” (UAM).
Some even suggest these vehicles could scoop up passengers and whisk them along pre-arranged flight corridors without a pilot.
Vertical dismisses this as a fantasy. “Our aircraft will be heavily automated,” says Mr Cervenka. “But both regulations and the public will require a pilot for years to come.”
An automatic response to an obstruction on a landing pad below will pull VA-1X up and away from a collision, but people still want to see a highly trained aviator in charge of their flight.
Using multiple propellers that point skywards for take-off and then rotate to tilt forward to fly horizontally, the VA-1X aims to carry four passengers and a pilot over short distances more cheaply than a helicopter.
Airlines operate within a framework of strict regulation, so how will this entirely new category of machine pass the scrutiny of international safety bodies? Mr Cervenka says he is working closely with UK and European regulators.
The technology behind VA-1X has been tested at a remote airfield in Wales using a prototype called Seraph. This is a piloted black box surrounded by six arms mounting rotor blades.
Seraph’s chunky appearance belies its role in proving the systems that should keep VA-1X’s eight electric motors pointing in the right direction. And if a motor fails Seraph can still hover and land.
With a winged design, as opposed to some of the wingless flying car proposals in the eVTOL world, Vertical’s VA-1X gains lift. So the wings take pressure off its electric power source, which is derived from a car battery. Vertical employs 25 ex-Formula 1 engineers and a battery engineer from Jaguar Land Rover.
The company claims its aircraft will be 30 times quieter than a helicopter. So in theory it should be able to make more use of existing heliports where the frequency of landings is restricted by noise regulations.
It spies a market for travel between locations not served by high-speed rail networks and regional airlines. Regional connectivity is the name of this game.
“We will offer an ability to connect places that are not well connected today,” says Mr Cervenka, who is eyeing up a London-to-Brighton service, a route notorious for rail delays and traffic jams.
Covid has slashed airline passenger numbers. So Mr Cervenka reckons new purchases of large airliners are off the menu. But airlines might use eVTOL flights from a major airport into the centre of a city to attract business or first-class flyers as part of their fare.
The 150mph (240km/h) VA-1X will need a full battery recharge every 100 miles, but a 25-mile short hop from an airport to city centre would allow for a fast recharge and quick turnaround.
David Tait, a lawyer studying emerging technologies for the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, says he expects eVTOL craft to gain regulatory approval for certain services – but he also pours cold water on the wilder promises of flying taxis.
“Consumer on-demand services are a long way away,” he says, citing the air traffic management challenges of putting too many machines into the air above a major city.
Designs such as the octo-engined VA-1X have no single point of failure, unlike a helicopter where the loss of rotor blades or power can be catastrophic.
“Our view is that eVTOL should be at least as safe as existing vehicles,” Mr Tait says. “Our expectation is that these will be quieter, cleaner and safer.”
Approximately 300 eVTOL projects are under way around the globe and Germany’s Lilium is one of the most advanced, attracting engineers from Boeing and Airbus.
Its distinctive eVTOL machine has 36 electric engines buried inside slender white wings and tail planes. These are ducted fans, sucking in air and blowing it out in the manner of a jet engine but without mixing it up with fuel. This mass of fans creates a strong current that will push the little five-seater jet to 300km/h (186mph) and give the pilot control over direction.
Remo Gerber, its operational chief, says that despite this radical design Lilium is “following a classic aviation approach”, with safety dictating design features such as the Kevlar shell around the fan blades, ensuring that if a blade flies off it will be contained within the tough material.
A technology demonstrator flew at its base outside Munich in 2019 and the larger production machine is intended to carry four passengers and a pilot like the VA-1X. These light passenger loads reflect the power limitations of electric motors.
Mr Gerber shares the view that UAM has been oversold: “We struggle with UAM. We don’t see the benefits.” He argues that very short distances make no sense for eVTOL because the final section of the trip still has to be made by road – Lilium is also focussing on the regional transport market.
Lilium plans a regional network based around Dusseldorf and Cologne airports in Germany’s densely populated North Rhine-Westphalia area. The idea is to connect smaller cities such as Aachen and Munster to the airports via Lilium aircraft by 2025.
It is also designing eVTOL airports – what it calls “vertiports”. With a relatively small footprint these present an affordable alternative to airports and railway stations. These could link up a region with hundreds of daily flights, and multiple high-frequency flights from different locations would carry more passengers than rival first-class rail services at equivalent fares.
Back at Vertical, manufacturing will see components such as the VA-1X’s cockpit displays arriving to be integrated in a final assembly. So Mr Cervenka’s very early experience putting many parts of a machine together may still pay dividends.