(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 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.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on Wednesday launched a search for eight people to join him as the first private passenger on a trip around the moon with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
He had originally planned to invite artists for the weeklong voyage slated for 2023.
The rejigged project will “give more people from around the globe the chance to join this journey. If you see yourself as an artist, then you are an artist,” Maezawa said.
The first stage of the application process runs to March 14.
The entrepreneur, who sold his online fashion business Zozo Inc to SoftBank in 2019, is paying the entire cost of the voyage on SpaceX’s next-generation reusable launch vehicle, dubbed the Starship.
Two recent prototypes have exploded during testing, underscoring the risks for Maezawa, 45, and his fellow passengers, who must also contend with the strains of space travel in the first private journey beyond Earth’s orbit.
“This mission we expect people will go further than any human has ever gone from Planet Earth,” Musk said, days after SpaceX completed its latest $850 million fundraising, which has helped turn the businessman into one of the world’s richest people.
Maezawa is known for his art and supercar collections, and the cash giveaways that have made him Japan’s most-followed Twitter account.
Last year he launched a short-lived documentary search for a new girlfriend to join him on the trip before pulling out citing “mixed feelings.”
Freed from his daily obligations at Amazon.com Inc, Jeff Bezos is expected to turn up the heat on his space venture, Blue Origin, as it faces a pivotal year and fierce competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, industry sources said.
The 57-year-old Bezos, a lifelong space enthusiast and the world’s second-richest person behind Musk, said last week he is stepping down as chief executive of the e-commerce company as he looks to focus on personal projects.
Blue Origin has fallen far behind SpaceX on orbital transportation, and lost out to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) on billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. national security launch contracts which begin in 2022. ULA is a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Now, Blue Origin is battling to win a competition with SpaceX and Dynetics to develop a new lunar lander for NASA’s potentially multibillion-dollar push to return humans to the moon in a few years. Dynetics is owned by Leidos Holdings Inc.
Winning the lunar lander contract – and executing its development – are seen by Bezos and other executives as vital to Blue Origin establishing itself as a desired partner for NASA, and also putting Blue on the road to turning a profit, the people said.
With limited revenue streams, Bezos has been liquidating about $1 billion of Amazon stock annually to fund Blue, which he said in 2018 was “the most important work that I’m doing.”
A Blue Origin representative declined to comment, but pointed to comments Bezos made last week when he said he was stepping down as Amazon’s chief executive.
He told Amazon employees he would “stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives” but also devote time to Blue Origin and various philanthropic and media “passions.”
NASA is expected to winnow the lunar lander contest to just two companies by the end of April, adding pressure as Blue Origin works through problems such as wasting millions of dollars on procurement, and technical and production challenges, the sources said.
One of the development struggles Blue has faced is getting the lander light and small enough to fit on a commercially available rocket, two people briefed on the development said.
Another source, however, said Blue has modified its design since it was awarded the initial contract last April and that its current design fits on an additional number of available and forthcoming rockets, including Musk’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s Vulcan.
“He is going to kick Blue Origin into a higher gear,” said one senior industry source with knowledge of Blue’s operations.
Bezos already has transplanted Amazon’s culture on Blue, down to enforcing similar “leadership principles” and kicking off meetings by reading documents in silence, sources say.
But one industry veteran said Bezos needs to take a hands-on, operational role if he is going to fix a number of problems like bureaucratic processes, missed deadlines, high overhead and engineer turnover which, according to this source, have emerged as Blue Origin seeks to transition from development to production across multiple programs.
One person familiar with the matter said that Bezos has no desire to immerse himself completely in daily operations, and instead would prioritize major initiatives and new endeavors.
In his latest Instagram posts, Bezos is seen climbing into a crew capsule wearing cowboy boots, and sitting in his pickup truck watching a rocket engine test, which he described as a “perfect night!”
BEZOS VERSUS MUSK
Founded in 2000, Blue Origin, based in Kent, Washington, has expanded to around 3,500 employees, with sprawling manufacturing and launch facilities in Texas, Florida and Alabama.
Its ambitious portfolio includes selling suborbital tourist trips to space, heavy-lift launch services for satellites, and the lander – none of which is yet fully commercially viable.
Recent data shows Blue has overcome combustion stability problems on its BE-4 rocket engine – another business line, two sources said. Test engines for ULA’s inaugural Vulcan rocket are expected to arrive at Florida’s Cape Canaveral this week, with the first-flight engines and booster coming later this spring, one added.
By comparison, Musk’s SpaceX, founded two years after Blue Origin, has launched its Falcon 9 boosters more than 100 times, launched the world’s most powerful operational rocket – Falcon Heavy – three times, and transported astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX said on Thursday it had 10,000 users on its nascent satellite-based broadband service, dubbed Starlink, which Musk says will provide crucial funding to develop his Starship rocket for missions to the moon and, eventually, Mars.
Blue is also hoping for a steady stream of revenue for its heavy-lift New Glenn rocket – potentially set for a debut late this year – from Amazon’s forthcoming constellation of some 3,200 satellites dubbed Project Kuiper, sources say.
Amazon aims to have half the constellation in orbit by 2026, but there is no public timeline for a first launch.
Until now, Bezos has devoted one day a week to Blue Origin, with conference room meetings replaced in recent months by video calls, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the sources said.
SpaceX has launched another of its Starship prototypes, and once again just failed to pull off the landing.
The uncrewed vehicle, codenamed SN9, climbed to 10km (6 miles) above the Texas Gulf coast, and then descended to try to put down under control a short distance from where it had lifted off.
When the company tried this last month with its SN8 model, the flight ended in an explosive impact with the ground.
SN9 didn’t fare much better, slamming into the ground in flames.
Nonetheless, SpaceX said a huge amount of data would be gained, and its engineers would press on with the programme.
“Remember, this was a test flight, (only) the second time we’ve flown Starship in this configuration,” said regular SpaceX webcast commentator John Insprucker.
“We’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit. But we’ll find out from the team as they go through the data. We were in contact with telemetry all the way down. So all told, another great (test).”
The 50m-tall Starship is a concept for future space transportation.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes that once fully developed, the vehicle will be capable of taking people to Mars. It could also ferry people quickly around the globe. Putting satellites in orbit is another obvious application.
The Starship’s design is making rapid progress at the company’s R&D facility near the small coastal village of Boca Chica.
SpaceX’s mantra is to learn by flying, to iterate and then to fly again.
SN9, the latest model, was cleared to launch only after receiving the necessary Federal Aviation Administration approvals, which came early on Tuesday.
Like SN8 before it, the vehicle was sent skyward by its three methane-burning Raptor engines. These were commanded to shut down in sequence as the prototype reached its target altitude.
Then, at the top of the climb, the Starship tipped over into the horizontal to begin the return to the ground.
This belly-flop descent, controlled by large flaps at the either end of the vehicle, is intended to simulate how future, operational Starships will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere from orbit, presenting a large surface area to the direction of travel to scrub off speed.
The vehicle is supposed to transition back to a tail-down configuration just before reaching the surface, re-igniting two Raptor engines to slow the fall to a walking pace at landing. But it appeared that SN9 only managed to light one engine properly. The vehicle was engulfed in flames as it impacted the concrete pad.
SpaceX already has SN10 on a mount ready for the next experimental flight. Further prototypes are at various stages of assembly at Boca Chica.
The Starship will eventually launch atop a booster called the Super Heavy.
This will feature perhaps 28 Raptors, producing more than 70 meganewtons (16 million lbs) of thrust. That’s much more than even the mighty Apollo Saturn 5 rocket, which sent men to the Moon.
When combined, both parts of the new SpaceX system – Starship and the Super Heavy booster – will stand about 120m tall on the launch pad.
The two elements are being designed to be fully reusable, making propulsive landings at the end of each mission.
Mr Musk has stated that Starship is now the number-one priority for SpaceX, beyond the Falcon rockets it currently routinely flies to serve satellite operators, the US Air Force and the US space agency (Nasa).
Nasa has already asked Mr Musk to examine the possibility of landing a Starship on the lunar surface in the next few years.
SpaceX’s first high-altitude test flight of its Starship rocket, which exploded last month while attempting to land after an otherwise successful test launch, violated the terms of its Federal Aviation Administration test license, the Verge reported on Friday, citing sources.
An investigation was opened that week focusing on the explosive landing and on SpaceX’s refusal to stick to the terms of what the FAA authorized, the Verge said.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Starship rocket destroyed in the accident was a 16-storey-tall prototype for the heavy-lift launch vehicle 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 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, propelled by three of SpaceX’s newly developed Raptor engines for the first time.
But the company left unclear whether the rocket had flown that high.
The FAA said it would evaluate additional information provided by SpaceX as part of its application to modify its launch license.
“We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements,” it said in a statement.
A new world record has been set for the number of satellites sent to space on a single rocket.
The 143 payloads, of all shapes and sizes, rode to orbit on a SpaceX Falcon rocket that launched out of Florida.
The number beats the previous record of 104 satellites carried aloft by an Indian vehicle in 2017.
It’s further evidence of the major structural changes taking place in space activity that are allowing many more actors to get involved.
This shift is the result of a revolution in robust, miniaturised, low-cost components – many taken direct from consumer electronics such as smartphones – that mean pretty much anyone can now build a capable satellite in a very small package.
And with SpaceX offering to transport those packages to orbit for just $1m, the commercial opportunities will continue to open up.
SpaceX itself had 10 satellites on the Falcon – the latest additions to its Starlink telecommunications mega-constellation, which is going to deliver broadband internet connections around the globe.
San Francisco’s Planet company had the most satellites of all on the flight – 48.
These were another batch of its SuperDove models that image the Earth’s surface daily at a resolution of 3-5m. The new spacecraft take the firm’s operational fleet now in orbit to more than 200.
The SuperDoves are the size of a shoebox. Many of the other payloads on the Falcon rocket were little bigger than a coffee mug, however; and some were smaller even than a paperback book.
Swarm Technologies is rolling out what it calls the SpaceBees. They’re just 10cm by 10cm by 2.5cm.
They’ll act as telecommunications nodes to connect devices that are attached to all manner of objects on the ground, from migrating animals to shipping containers.
Some of the larger items on the Falcon rocket were suitcase-sized. Among these were several radar satellites. Radar has been one of the major beneficiaries of the revolution in componentry.
Traditionally, radar satellites were big, multi-tonne objects that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fly, which essentially meant only the military or major space agencies could afford to operate them.
But the adoption of new materials and compact “off the shelf” parts have dramatically shrunk the size (to under 100kg) and price (a couple of million dollars) of these spacecraft.
Iceye from Finland, Capella and Umbra from the US, and iQPS of Japan all took the ride to orbit on Sunday. These start-ups are establishing constellations in the sky that will return rapid, repeat imagery of the Earth.
Radar has the advantage over standard optical cameras of being able to pierce cloud, and to sense the Earth’s surface whether it is day or night. We’re entering an age when any change on the planet, wherever it happens, will be picked up almost immediately.
The Falcon carried the 143 satellites into a 500km-high path that runs from pole to pole. This is one of the drawbacks of a big rideshare mission: you go where the rocket goes, and for some that might not be ideal.
A number of satellite missions will want an orbit that’s higher or lower in the sky, or on a different inclination to the equator.
This can be achieved by mounting the satellites on “space tugs” which, after coming off the top of the rocket, modify the final parameters for their “passengers” over the course of several weeks. Sunday’s Falcon carried two such tugs.
But for some missions a bespoke ride is going to be the only satisfactory solution. It’s why we’re now witnessing a rush to produce small rockets that can run dedicated flights.media captionWATCH: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket blasts its way to space
These smaller rockets will not be able to compete on cost with the big vehicles, such as SpaceX’s Falcon-9, but they should attract the custom of those with very specific or urgent needs.
Dan Hart, the CEO of Virgin Orbit, which has developed a small rocket that can be launched from under the wing of a Boeing 747, says the start-ups are becoming more discerning.
“These small satellites used to be points of fascination and interest, and it was a case of finding the cheapest way possible to get into space,” he explained.
“That’s rapidly changing. These are now businesses with critical missions that risk losing revenue if they have to wait on others or go into an unsuitable orbit. And that’s why you’re going to see people who will pay that little bit more to get to where they want to go when they absolutely need to go there,” he told BBC News.