SpaceX Starship SN11 Blows Itself Apart During High-Altitude Test

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The in-development Starship rocket is key to SpaceX’s future plans, from lunar missions to Mars colonization. Elon Musk’s spaceflight company has been open with its Starship testing, even with the results haven’t been flattering. In the most recent test, the Starship SN11 reached an altitude of about eight kilometers, and then something went wrong. We don’t know exactly what happened yet, but the vessel came down in pieces. Musk quipped on Twitter that at least the crater was in the right place. Say what you will about Elon Musk, he’s pretty unflappable, even when his most ambitious aerospace project struggles to get off the ground. 

The Starship is being developed with reusability in mind like the Falcon 9. SpaceX envisions a fleet of reusable Starships that can take off, land, and then fly again after refueling. While it shares this property with the Falcon 9, the two devices don’t share hardware. The Starship is larger, made of different materials, and has new engines. 

SpaceX has thus far only succeeded in landing the rocket after a low altitude test. In the last flight, featuring SN10, the rocket flew high into the atmosphere, and then landed on the launch pad. It looked like everything would work out, but damage to the fuel system from the harder-than-expected landing led to an explosion several minutes later. The new SN11 flight looks like a step backward as it didn’t even reach the ground in one piece. 

The final image from the Starship (see above) live stream featured one of the craft’s three Raptor engines reigniting for the descent sequence. Contact with the vehicle was lost moments later. Musk said following the incident that the issue appeared to be with the number 2 engine, which didn’t reach operating pressure, but it shouldn’t have been needed to get the rocket on the ground safely. Something else, possibly related to the engine, occurred after the landing burn was supposed to start. However, SpaceX can’t begin to piece together the specifics until it can examine the debris later today. 

This failed test is one more potential setback for SpaceX’s aggressive timeline. Musk has said he hopes to fly a group of passengers, including Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, around the moon and back in 2023. He’s also pushed the idea that Starships could begin transporting Mars colonists in less than a decade, a timeline that most scientists consider unreasonable. Musk might not have a chance to convince everyone his vision is possible if the rocket doesn’t stop exploding.

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