SpaceX SN11 Rocket Explodes During Descent

Artist’s rendering of a SpaceX Starship rocket on the Moon. Image credit: SpaceX

Another bumpy ride for Elon Musk’s prototype spacecraft that will eventually be used to ferry mankind to the moon and Mars

SpaceX continues to push hard in its testing of the prototype rockets that the firm hopes will soon carry mankind to Mars.

The Starship (Serial Number 11) SN11 rocket carried out its first test flight on Tuesday, after it took off in thick fog from the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, Texas for a high altitude test. However as it was attempting to come back down to land, it broke up and exploded.

This is now the fourth Starlink rocket that SpaceX has lost, and comes after the US Congress revealed it was investigating the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over its handling of a previous SpaceX launch for allegedly violating SpaceX’s licence and public safety requirements.

SpaceX's Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX

SN11 test

“Similar to previous high-altitude flight tests, Starship Serial Number 11 (SN11) was powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 km in altitude,” SpaceX announced.

“SN11 performed a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent,” the firm said.

“Shortly after the landing burn started, SN11 experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly,” it added. “Teams will continue to review data and work toward our next flight test.

SpaceX was keen to stress that test flights are all about improving its understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration interplanetary flights.

A video of the SN11 flight can be seen here, although visibility of the launch was greatly reduced because of the fog.

Previous losses

The loss of SN11 rocket comes after previous test flights of other Starship prototypes also ended in destruction.

The Starlink SN8 prototype exploded as it attempted to land vertically in December.

In February the Starship SN9 prototype also exploded on impact during an attempted landing.

In early March the SN10 prototype successfully landed upright near its launch site. However, roughly three minutes after landing, the rocket exploding on its landing pad.

Planetary transporter

SpaceX had first revealed the giant stainless-steel space vehicle MK1 to the world back in September 2019.

SpaceX's Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX

The Starship is designed to ferry dozens of passengers (or cargo) to the Moon and Mars, in line with a long-term NASA project called Artemis.

Indeed, Elon Musk has already signed up his first commercial passenger, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who wants to fly around the Moon and back with a group of artists.

The rocket prototypes are built of stainless steel, and will be able to carry both cargo and as many as a 100 people at a time on missions to the moon and Mars.

While SpaceX’s fleet of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are designed to be partially reusable, Musk’s goal is to make Starship fully reusable.

Indeed, his vision is of a rocket that is more akin to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights – where the only major cost is fuel.