With a fourth launch in less than four months, SpaceX and Elon Musk discovered another way how not to land a Starship prototype.
The SN11 Starship prototype was launched from the SpaceX Boca Chica facility on March 30. Through a foggy Texas morning, the rocket climbed to an altitude of approximately 10 kilometers before descending back down to Earth.
The SN11 prototype successfully performed the “bellyflop” manoeuvre which is used to bleed off speed before its Raptor engines are re-ignited for the landing burn.
Five minutes and forty-nine seconds after liftoff shortly after engine re-ignition, the live feed from the cameras froze. Despite there being no visuals, audio continued to stream. Approximately ten seconds after the live feed was lost with the vehicle under one kilometre from the ground, an audible explosion could be heard.
Despite the auditory clue, the exact fate of the SN11 vehicle was not initially forthcoming as the landing pad was obscured by thick fog. As the dust settled, onlookers nearby began to find wreckage of what would turn out to be a large debris field.
In a statement following the incident, SpaceX said that SN11 had experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” shortly after the landing burn started.
As has become standard, SpaceX’s mercurial founder and CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter in what has become a forum for unofficial debriefings following Starship flights.
Replying to questions, Musk stated that SN11’s engine 2 had run into some trouble during ascent resulting in it being unable to reach chamber pressure during the landing burn. However, he added that this was likely not what caused the explosion stating, “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start.”
SpaceX is currently investigating the incident reviewing data as they work towards the next flight.
The SN15 Starship prototype is to be the next on the block and is expected to be rolled out to the launch pad in the next few days. According to Musk, this prototype will include hundreds of design improvements to the vehicle’s structure, avionics, software and engines.