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Orlando Sentinel
Orlando Sentinel
Richard Tribou

SpaceX Starship prototype explodes on landing, but Elon Musk happy with flight test

A SpaceX Starship prototype was destroyed in a fireball Wednesday when it attempted to land after the company successfully launched it for a high-altitude flight.

The launch was an attempt to send SN8, as in serial number 8, to 12.5 km, about 41,000 feet, using three of the company's Raptor engines for the first time, and return it safely to the company's facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

While the launch seemed to go as planned, the landing resulted in a massive explosion that left the stainless steel rocket obliterated.

"This suborbital flight is designed to test a number of objectives, from how the vehicle's three Raptor engines perform, and the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities of the vehicle, including its body flaps, to how the vehicle manages propellant transition," reads a statement from SpaceX. "SN8 will also attempt to perform a landing flip maneuver, which would be a first for a vehicle of this size.

"With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn as a whole, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances development of Starship."

The flight came just after 6 p.m. EST Wednesday, one day after an auto-abort sequence halted an attempt at T-1 seconds.

Ahead of the launch, SpaceX founder Elon Musk posted on his Twitter account that he expected, "Probably 1/3 chance of completing all mission objectives."

After the explosion, Musk posted, "Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!" and "Mars, here we come!!"

As for the explosion, Musk posted, "Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly), but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!"

The Starship design is meant to be used for both suborbital point-to-point flights on Earth and for deep-space missions such as to the moon and Mars. The full version will feature six Raptor engines, stand about 165 feet tall and have a 100-passenger capacity.

The large version of Starship would be coupled with a Super Heavy booster with 37 Raptor engines combined for Mars colonization plans.

Musk recently stated the company was aiming for a crewless mission by 2022 and if everything falls the company's way, possibly the first humans to Mars by 2024, but that he's more confident in achieving that goal by 2026.

To date, prototypes of Starship had only flown to 150 meters, or about 492 feet, using a single normal-size Raptor engine.

Plans are for SpaceX to continue proving out flight ability for Starship with higher altitudes, and eventually orbital test flights. The tests follow a similar method it used when developing its Falcon rockets. Starship is the company's eventual replacement for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

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