The SpaceX Starship SN10 prototype completed a high-altitude test flight on March 3 touching down meters away from where it was launched. Although it initially appeared that the company had successfully recovered one of its Starship prototypes for the first time, shortly after touching down, the rocket exploded.
After lifting off from the SpaceX Starship development and launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas at 23:14 UTC, the SN10 prototype climbed to an altitude of approximately 10 kilometres.
Following engine shutdown, the vehicle completed its “belly flop” manoeuvre to bleed off speed in preparation for a controlled touchdown.
Unlike previous tests, SN10 then refired all three of its Raptor engines instead of just two, a change implemented following the SN9 test.
Footage from the touchdown appears to show two of the three engines cutting out close to the ground leaving just one to complete the last phase of the test. Although the lone Raptor managed to bring SN10 down safely, the rocket noticeably bounced as it hit the ground, likely harder than SpaceX engineers would have liked.
Despite the less than perfect touchdown, it initially appeared that SpaceX had completed its first Starship recovery. However, approximately 10 minutes after its eventful touchdown, the SN10 prototype exploded.
The explosion appeared to originate from the base of the rocket sending the upper section skyward. This could indicate that a rough landing damaged the launch vehicle’s propellant tank, which still contained excess propellant, which turned it into a timebomb ready to explode at any second.
Despite the explosive conclusion, SpaceX will likely see this as a significant step forward in its mission to develop its reusable Starship launch vehicle.