SpaceX Starship prototype sticks landing, then explodes

A SpaceX Starship prototype, fired from south Texas on Wednesday, soared to an altitude of six miles, toppled on its side as planned, and fell back to Earth in a high-altitude swan dive, spinning back vertically, and then successfully landing in near the launch pad. A few minutes later it exploded in a spectacular ball of fire.
It was the company's third Starship high altitude test flight and first successful landing. But the missile came to rest with a slight tilt, and a fire could be seen at its base near the engine compartment. Moments later, the unmanned prototype - SN10 - exploded and covered the pad with burning debris.
A few minutes after touchdown, the Starship prototype exploded and blew up the top of the rocket in a spectacular fire. / Photo credit: LabPadre webcast
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Despite the explosion, the successful landing was a major milestone for SpaceX founder Elon Musk in his quest to create a fully reusable heavy-lift rocket, although it did highlight the risks of an aggressive testing program.
"The SpaceX team is doing a great job! One day the real measure of success will be that spacecraft flights are the order of the day," Musk tweeted.
The SpaceX team is doing a great job! One day the real measure of success will be that spacecraft flights are the order of the day.
- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 4, 2021
Just before SpaceX completed its launch webcast - and before the rocket exploded - company commentator John Insprucker said, "The third time is the stimulus, as the saying goes."
"We had a successful soft touchdown on the landing pad and completed a beautiful test flight of Starship 10," he said. "As a reminder: An important point of today's test flight was the collection of the data for controlling the vehicle upon re-entry. We succeeded in doing this."
In closing, he congratulated the Texas launch team, saying, "They've steadily increased the cadence of the test launch throughout the program and performed some of the most exciting test flights many of us have seen in a long time."
With three dramatic launches and explosions in a row, few would argue.
The spaceship prototype No. 10 takes off from the SpaceX flight facility in Boca Chica, Texas, on a short test flight up and down to an altitude of about ten kilometers to test the propulsion, guidance and landing systems of the rocket. / Photo credit: SpaceX webcast
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The Starship prototype, serial number 10 for short or SN10 for short, reflected the two previous unsuccessful test flights and took off at 6:14 p.m. from the SpaceX launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. ET and climbed through mostly clear skies using three SpaceX-designed Raptor engines.
It started about two hours after the engines ignited for an initial attempt to start, but were shut down a moment later on command from the computer. Musk said the software engine's thrust limits were "slightly conservative," the engineers made an adjustment, and the team made a second attempt at launch.
The ascent, which burned liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, appeared to be going smoothly, and as the rocket gained altitude, one engine and then two were shut off as planned.
When the third engine reached a maximum altitude of about six miles four and a half minutes after take off, it shut down and the spaceship immediately overturned on its side and tumbled back toward Earth.
The spaceship tilts horizontally after the engine is turned off and relies on the fins in front and behind for stabilization and control. / Photo credit: SpaceX webcast
With computer-controlled fins on its nose and stern, the spaceship performed a horizontal dive followed by powerful cameras from SpaceX and several independent space enthusiasts.
As it neared the ground, the spaceship's engines restarted and the missile tipped back into the vertical, as if programmed for a single-engine touchdown. Despite a slight incline and the flame that was briefly seen at the base of the rocket, the test flight appeared to be a complete success.
"As we approached the landing pad, we successfully lit the three Raptor engines to perform this flip maneuver and then turned off two of them and landed on the single engine as planned," Insprucker said. "A nice soft landing from Starship on the landing site in Boca Chica."
He said Starship SN11 is "ready to roll onto the pad in the near future. It's an inspiring time for the future of human space travel."
The prototype lit its three engines for a tail landing. / Photo credit: SpaceX webcast
The missile launched on Wednesday is a prototype of the second stage of a giant missile consisting of a 230-foot "super heavy" first stage that uses 28 Raptor engines to generate 16 million pounds of thrust, more than twice the legendary one NASA's Saturn 5 moon rocket. A prototype of the first stage has not yet been completed.
The second stage of the rocket, also confusingly known as the spaceship, will deploy half a dozen Raptor engines capable of launching 100 tons of payload into low orbit. For comparison, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket can put about 30 tons into orbit.
As with Starships' last two test flights, the SN10 was a second stage prototype of Starships using only three Raptor engines.
At least three versions of the spaceship are planned: one for transporting heavy payloads to Earth orbit, the moon, or Mars; one designed to transport propellant for orbital refueling operations; and one that can carry up to 100 passengers at a time.
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