SpaceX completed the first high-altitude flight test of its next-generation Starship launch vehicle on December 9. Although much of the flight was successful, a pressure issue in the header fuel tank resulted in the destruction of the prototype.
The SN8 Starship prototype was launched at 22:45 UTC from the SpaceX Boca Chica facility in Texas. After climbing to an altitude of 12.5 kilometers, the vehicle’s three Raptor engines were shut down leaving SN8 to drift back down to Earth in preparation for a propulsive landing.
During the Starship vehicle’s descent, SN8 successfully completed a complex “belly flop” manoeuvre designed to bleed off speed ensuring the vehicle requires less thrust to touch down safely.
As SN8 approached its landing site metres away from where it had lifted off, the vehicle reorientated itself vertically and fired its engines in preparation for a soft touchdown. However, during the final moments of the touchdown, it appeared that one of the Raptor engines cut out early dooming SN8 to a fiery end.
In a statement on Twitter following the demise of SN8, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said that the pressure in the header fuel tank was low during the landing burn. This loss of pressure resulted in a higher than expected velocity during touchdown.
Despite the destructive conclusion, Musk said that the team had got all the data they needed and would begin preparing SN9 for its maiden flight.
The development of the SpaceX Starship vehicle was initially hinted at in 2012. With the announcement of the first private Starship mission to the Moon in late 2018, development of the vehicle began in earnest with the first short flight of an early prototype being completed in April 2019.