SpaceX’s Starship prototype has exploded while attempting to land after its test launch from the company’s rocket facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Live video of Wednesday’s test showed the self-guided rocket landing at speed following a controlled descent before disappearing in a ball of flame.
Despite the catastrophic end to the six-and-a-half-minute test, SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk was thrilled. “Mars, here we come!!” he tweeted.
The Starship rocket destroyed in the accident was a 16-storey-tall prototype for the heavy-lift launch vehicle being developed by Musk’s private space company to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars.
The test flight had been intended to reach an altitude of 41,000 feet (12,500 metres), propelled by three of SpaceX’s newly developed Raptor engines for the first time. SpaceX did not make clear whether the rocket had flown that high.
Musk said immediately following the landing mishap that the rocket’s “fuel header tank pressure was low” during descent, “causing touchdown velocity to be high”. He added that SpaceX had obtained “all the data we needed” from the test and hailed the rocket’s ascent phase a success.
SpaceX made its first attempt to launch Starship on Tuesday, but a problem with its Raptor engines forced an automatic abort just one second before liftoff.
The complete Starship rocket, which will stand 394ft (120m) tall when combined with its super-heavy first-stage booster, is the company’s next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle and the centre of Musk’s ambitions to make human space travel more affordable and routine.
Nasa awarded SpaceX $135m to help develop Starship, alongside competing vehicles from rival ventures Blue Origin, the space company owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, and Leidos-owned Dynetcis.
The three companies are vying for future contracts to build the moon landers under Nasa’s Artemis program, which calls for a series of human lunar explorations within the next decade.
SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, has been buying up residential properties in the Boca Chica village just north of the US-Mexico border in south-eastern Texas to make room for his expanding Starship facilities, which Musk envisions as a future “gateway to Mars”.