Starship SN11 rocket explodes upon landing

(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.”

SpaceX Starship rocket prototype nails landing… then blows up

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.

SpaceX: Starship prototype flies again but crashes after landing

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).”

Pad explosion
image captionAnother explosive encounter with the Boca Chica beachfront

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.

SN9 launch
image captionSN9 lifted off next to the waiting SN10, which will be next to fly

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.

Rockets line-ups

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.

Musk’s SpaceX violated its launch license in explosive Starship test – The Verge

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.

Source: Reuters

What is Elon Musk’s Starship?

Elon Musk is planning to soon launch the prototype of a vehicle that could be a game-changer for space travel. Starship, as it’s known, will be a fully reusable transport system capable of carrying up to 100 people to the Red Planet.

Starship prototype in Boca Chica
image captionSpaceX has been developing a line of Starship prototypes at its facility in South Texas

The founding ethos of Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company SpaceX was to make life multi-planetary. This is partly motivated by existential threats such as an asteroid collision big enough to wipe out humanity.

Settling other planets would place some of the eggs in other baskets, sparing human civilisation if one of them were to experience a cataclysm.

In 2016, the entrepreneur outlined his rationaleat an international conference in Mexico: “History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event,” he said.

“The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilisation and a multi-planet species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”

Musk has often spoken about his dream of building cities on Mars. He believes that settlements would need large numbers of people in order to become self-sustaining.

Mars settlement
image captionMusk has spoken of building cities on the Martian surface

Realising this dream requires a vehicle that’s up to the task. Starship is a rocket and spacecraft combination that could ferry more than 100 people a time to the Red Planet.

The system is designed to be fully reusable, meaning the principal hardware elements are not discarded in the sea or allowed to burn up, as happens with some other launch systems, but are instead recovered from space. They can then be refurbished and flown again, reducing the cost of the whole enterprise.

Starship: An overview

The rocket part of the system is called Super Heavy, while the spacecraft part is called Starship.

The combined system will stand 120m (394ft) -tall and is also referred to as Starship.

Let’s take the spacecraft first. With its nosecone and landing fins, the stainless-steel vehicle resembles the rocket-ships from the golden age of science fiction. 

The 50m (160ft) -long craft, also known as the upper stage, has a huge payload compartment near the front (aft) end that will be able to haul large cargo or people to destinations in deep space.

Towards the middle of the craft are the propellant tanks. These feed liquid methane (CH4) and liquid oxygen (O2) to six Raptor engines at the rear of the vehicle.

Methane is the fuel and oxygen acts as an oxidiser – a chemical that makes the fuel burn. The combination is dubbed methalox. 

Rockets line-ups

The choice of fuel is unusual for rocket engines, but methane can generate plenty of thrust. It’s also a prudent choice in light of Musk’s designs on Mars. The SpaceX founder says that CH4 could be synthesised from Martian subsurface water and from atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), using a chemical process known as the Sabatier reaction.

SpaceX has spent more than a decade developing the highly efficient Raptor engine. The combustion takes place in stages, and the engine’s design cuts the amount of propellant that’s wasted.

Re-fuelling Starship for the return trip to Earth using Martian resources would confer a level of self-sufficiency, making journeys both more feasible and cost-effective.

Now, let’s turn to the rocket. Measuring 70m (230ft) -long, Super Heavy will be filled with 3,400 tonnes (6.8 million lbs) of cryogenic (chilled) methalox.

It will be powered by around 28 Raptor engines (this specification has changed several times), providing some 16 million lbs (72 Meganewtons) of maximum thrust.

This will make Super Heavy more powerful than the immense Saturn V launcher used for the Apollo Moon missions in the 1960s and 70s.

How does it get into space?

As it ascends from the launch pad, the combined Starship system will begin to pitch over towards the intended orbit. 

When the upper stage separates in space, Super Heavy flips over while falling back towards Earth.

As it descends, Super Heavy will deploy steel structures called “grid fins”, shaped a bit like potato waffles, from the sides of the booster. These will help steer the rocket stage back towards its launch pad so it can land and be flown again.

Previously, SpaceX had wanted to ignite Super Heavy’s Raptor engines to guide it down to a precision landing on six steel legs. SpaceX does something similar with the first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets, landing them safely on landing pads and drone ships after a launch.

But Mr Musk recently tweeted to say that this thinking had changed. SpaceX now plans to catch the falling booster using an arm on the launch tower.

This is the structure that provides engineers and crew members with access to the spacecraft and rocket while they are sitting on the pad before launch. How exactly this “catch mechanism” will work, however, remains to be seen. 

Starship at stage separation
image captionStarship after separation from Super Heavy

Meanwhile, the Starship upper stage could be inserted into a “parking orbit” after separation, allowing it to be re-fuelled.

“If you just fly [Starship] to orbit and don’t do any refilling, it’s pretty good — you’ll get 150 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, and have no fuel to go anywhere else,” Musk explained during a conference keynote speech in 2017.

“If you send up tankers and re-fill in orbit, you could re-fill the tanks up all the way to the top, and get 150 tonnes [of payload] all the way to Mars.”

To re-fuel, the spacecraft would dock, or mate, with another Starship – already circling the Earth – that acts solely as a propellant depot.

“The two ships would actually mate at the rear section. They would use the same mating interface that they use to connect to the booster on lift-off,” Musk said in 2017.

“To transfer propellant it becomes very simple: You use control thrusters to accelerate in the direction that you want to empty.”

Starship, Artemis version
image captionSpaceX has been designing a version of Starship for Nasa Artemis flights to the Moon

What will Starship be used for?

For long-haul trips to Mars and back – which could take up to nine months each way – Musk is looking to install around 40 cabins in the payload area near the front of the upper stage.

“You could conceivably have five or six people per cabin, if you really wanted to crowd people in. But I think mostly we would expect to see two or three people per cabin, and so nominally about 100 people per flight to Mars,” Musk said.

The payload bay would also host common areas, storage space, a galley and a shelter where people could gather to shield from solar storms, where the Sun belches out harmful charged particles into space.

Starship might also play a role in Nasa’s Artemis programme, which aims to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon. In 2020, SpaceX was awarded $135m by Nasa to advance the design of Starship so it could be used as a crewed lunar lander.

Starship at Saturn
image captionMusk envisages Starship being used for trips to the “greater Solar System”, but this is a longer-term goal

The version tailored for Artemis flights would not possess the heat shield or flaps that are necessary for a return journey to Earth. Instead, the Starship Human Landing System would remain in space after its initial launch from Earth, to be used for multiple trips between lunar orbit and the Moon’s surface.

The uncrewed, or cargo, version of Starship features a payload bay that opens up like the mouth of a crocodile. This would allow it to be used for launching satellites. SpaceX says the huge payload capacity opens up possibilities for new types of robotic science mission, including telescopes larger than the James Webb observatory – the forthcoming successor to Hubble.

The system could even be used for high-speed journeys between different destinations on Earth.

Musk says that Starship could eventually carry people to destinations in the “greater Solar System”, including gas giants such as Jupiter. But this remains a long-term objective.

How does the upper stage land?

In order to bring other spacecraft back to Earth, engineers have relied on parachutes, or designed the vehicle so that it can land on a runway.

But the Starship upper stage takes a different approach. When it is ready to land, the ship initially re-enters the atmosphere at a 60-degree angle and then “belly-flops” to the ground in the horizontal position.

This mode of return relies entirely on the atmosphere to slow the vehicle’s descent. The downside is that, in this configuration, Starship is inherently unstable.

image captionStarship “belly flops” back to Earth before firing its engines to flip it into the vertical position

The vehicle therefore uses four steel landing flaps, positioned near the front and rear of the vehicle, to control its descent. This is much like a skydiver uses their arms and legs to control a free-fall.

“It’s quite different from anything else… we’re doing a controlled fall,” Elon Musk said during a Starship update in 2019. 

“You’re trying to create drag rather than lift – it’s really the opposite of an aircraft.”

As Starship approaches the ground, it should be slow enough to execute an engine burn that flips the vehicle into a vertical position. It then uses the Raptors as retro-rockets to guide the vehicle down to a safe landing.

Musk says this general approach could be used to bring Starship down safely on any planetary surface in the Solar System – Mars included.

When will it fly?

In the last few years, SpaceX has tested various prototypes of the Starship upper stage at its Boca Chica facility in Texas.

The company started off with a 39m-tall “test article” called Starhopper, which bore a passing resemblance to a water tower. Since flying this vehicle to 150m above ground, SpaceX has been developing increasingly complex Starship prototypes.

In December 2020, SpaceX launched a test article named SN8 (Starship number 8) – the first to feature a nosecone and flaps. After reaching an altitude of 12.5km, SN8 belly flopped back to Earth, giving SpaceX valuable engineering data about the final part of Starship’s return from space.

image captionStarhopper was an early prototype built by SpaceX

It was almost a textbook flight, but the vehicle approached the landing pad a little too fast and hard, causing it to crumple and explode. SpaceX has already moved prototype SN9 to the launch pad, and, this time, they’re aiming to stick the landing.

In October 2020, Elon Musk said SpaceX was aiming to launch Starship on an uncrewed flight to Mars in 2024.

Some observers note that Mr Musk’s timelines are sometimes optimistic. But he has also developed a reputation for eventually achieving his goals, no matter how ambitious.

By Paul Rincon
Science editor, BBC