An advanced SpaceX rocket exploded at the end of a high-altitude test flight on Tuesday, but deep fog at the launch site left even SpaceX publicly unsure what caused the blast.
On Twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed the blast, adding, “At least the crater is in the right place!”
At least the crater is in the right place!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021
SpaceX’s previous three launches of prototype rockets for this form of rocket all crashed or exploded shortly after landing.
The rocket, named SN11, had a natural ascent, according to SpaceX engineer John Insprucker, who conducted a webcast of the test flight. Everything seemed to be acceptable before onboard cameras lost signal, and the rocket was subsumed by fog minutes before landing. Once SpaceX engineers are able to visit the landing site, Insprucker said the organization would post updates on social media. For safety concerns, the area outside the spacecraft must be cleared before liftoff.
According to Insprucker, the organization does not intend to restore video footage. “Don’t wait for landing,” he told people watching the webcast.
Due to fog, independent video streamers who filmed the flight were unable to catch the final stretch of the flight. Still, NASASpaceflight, a media source, claimed that one of the outlet’s cameras might have been hit by debris from the rocket. During the rocket’s descent, video from the launch pad confirmed that SN11 was nowhere to be found.
SN11 is a prototype of Starship, Musk’s spacecraft that he hopes will one day transport the first humans to Mars. It’s also the fourth concept that SpaceX has deployed on a high-altitude test flight as the corporation tries to figure out how to land the giant spacecraft upright when it returns to Earth.
SN10, the last aircraft to fly, landed upright earlier this month, but three minutes later, the aircraft exploded, according to independent video.
During a September 2019 media event, Musk first unveiled Starship’s planned landing system. He identified it as a one-of-a-kind maneuver in which the rocket would dive back through the air with its belly pointing toward the Earth while its four fins shifted subtly to keep it stable. Musk said the maneuver is meant to resemble how a skydiver will plunge through the air, rather than the pure vertical descent to Earth that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets use while landing.
According to the company’s website, perfecting the belly-flop landing maneuver is crucial to “enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond,”
Starship will be used for a range of uses by SpaceX, including transporting paying customers between cities at breakneck speeds, possibly assisting NASA’s Moon landing operations, and, finally, sending cargo and human missions to Mars.
The production of Starship is also in its early stages. A full-scale prototype has not yet been built. Furthermore, SpaceX has yet to publicly test Super Heavy, a massive rocket booster that would be used to push the Starship into Earth’s orbit or beyond. However, the first version of the Super Heavy booster was just discovered at SpaceX’s South Texas facilities.
During a recent interview with podcast host Joe Rogan, Musk said that he expects Starship to begin routine flights by 2023 and that he plans to enter orbit by the end of this year. It’s uncertain if SpaceX will reach the deadline. The aerospace industry has a reputation for announcing projects that take much longer than anticipated, and Musk is no exception.