Update:Yesterday (March 9th), Elon Musk shared the reason for the explosion via Twitter. According to Musk, the problem originated with the one Raptor engine used to slow the SN10 down before landing.
“SN10 engine was low on thrust due (probably) to partial helium ingestion from fuel header tank,” he tweeted. “Impact of 10m/s crushed legs & part of skirt. Multiple fixes in work for SN11.“
On March 3rd, 2021, SpaceX conducted a third high-altitude flight test with one of their Starship prototypes (SN10). This time around, the prototype managed to achieve an apogee of 10 km (6.2 mi), a controlled descent relying on nothing but its aerodynamic surfaces (the “belly-flop”), and even managed to land successfully. However, a few minutes after it stuck the landing, the SN10 exploded on the landing pad.
Whereas the SN8 and SN9 explosions were attributed to problems that took place during engine reignition, the cause of the SN10 explosion was not as clear. Thankfully, astrophysicist and Youtube personality Scott Manley (Twitter handle @DJSnM) has offered his take on what might have caused it. Using SpaceX’s footage of the SN10 flight test, he suggests that a slightly-harder-than-intended landing and a fuel tank rupture were responsible.
Another day, another round of testing (and yes, another explosion). Today, on Tuesday, Feb. 2nd, 2021, flight teams at SpaceX’s launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas, conducted a high-altitude test flight with a Starship prototype. Similar to the previous test in December, the SN9 was powered by three Raptor engines, flew to an altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi), then attempted another “belly flop” to test out its fins and aerodynamic surfaces.
As always, the event was broadcast via live stream by SpaceX, NASASpaceFlight, LabPadre, and several other observers. Like the SN8 test flight, SpaceX’s coverage provided multiple vantage points (landing pad, engine compartment, fuselage, aerial drone, etc.) The flight commenced at 2:25:15 P.M. CST (04:25:15 EST; 12:25:15 PST) when the Starship ignited its three engines and began its ascent.
To commemorate their greatest accomplishment to date with the Starship, SpaceX has released a recap video of the SN8 high-altitude flight. This was the 12.5 km hop test that took place on December 9th, 2020, which saw the SN8 prototype ascend to an altitude of 12.5 km (7.8 mi), conduct a “belly-flop” maneuver, and return to the launch pad. While it didn’t quite stick the landing, the test was a major milestone in the development of the Starship.
For years, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has talked about what he will do once his company’s super heavy-lift launch system is finally ready to go! While tidbits of information were shared between 2011 and 2015, it was not until September of 2017 that Musk began to share detailed plans for this system. By 2018, Musk announced that work on the Starship and Super-Heavy (formerly known as the BFR) was underway.
In the past year, progress on the Starship has advanced by leaps and bounds (despite a few explosions). This reached a high point on Dec. 9th, 2020, when the SN8 prototype conducted a hop test where it reached an altitude of 12.5 km (7.8 mi) and did a “belly-flop” on the way down. According to recent indications, the SN9 may be making a hop test by the end of this week!