SpaceX is still working hard to land one of its Starship prototypes without having to endure the spectacle of it going up in a ball of flames.
Four high-altitude test flights over the last four months have seen SpaceX’s next-generation rocket achieve much in the air, including stable flight and the all-important flip during descent to get in position for touchdown. But the actual landing itself is proving tricky.
The latest high-altitude test flight took place in foggy conditions at SpaceX’s test site near Boca Chica, Texas, on Wednesday, March 30. The live video feed from the camera on the rocket froze on descent, but the data suggested, as with the previous flights, that the 50-meter-tall Starship prototype — version SN11 — performed according to plan. Until the landing, that is.
As with the three previous efforts, this one, too, ended in a fireball.
Responding to an inquiry about the accident, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the failure of the most recent test flight stemmed from a fuel leak.
“A (relatively) small CH4 leak led to fire on engine 2 & fried part of avionics, causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump,” Musk said.
Ascent phase, transition to horizontal & control during free fall were good.
A (relatively) small CH4 leak led to fire on engine 2 & fried part of avionics, causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump.
This is getting fixed 6 ways to Sunday.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 5, 2021
CH4 refers to the methane propellant used by Starship’s Raptor engine, with the “hard start” reference indicating there was excessive combustible propellant in the combustion chamber prior to ignition, leading to a dangerous spike in pressure that ultimately caused the rocket to fail.
Although it’s the fourth failure in as many months, SpaceX did manage to safely land the SN10 prototype following a test flight last month, but an anomaly caused it to explode minutes after touchdown.
Of course, every flight gives the team valuable data, so we can expect that just as with its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, it won’t be too long before we see Starship prototypes touching down without any fireworks to top it off.
When SpaceX finally perfects its Starship rocket, the California-based company will launch it as the second-stage booster — and also as a spacecraft — atop the almighty first-stage Super Heavy rocket, powered by 31 Raptor engines.
Looking ahead, the goal is to deploy the Starship and Super Heavy rocket as a reusable system to carry as many as 100 people and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars, and possibly beyond.