Third time unlucky: SpaceX’s SN10 explodes after what seemed like a safe landing

Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s latest Starship prototype, on Wednesday, landed for the first time after carrying out a high-altitude test flight in Texas, but in a sudden turn of events, exploded minutes later on its landing pad. The rocket, an early test version called SN10, aimed to nail a key milestone in Elon Musk’s campaign to build a fully reusable rocket system, demonstrated a few complex dances in mid-air before clinching a soft touch down before the explosion.

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The prototype lifted off at 6:14 pm ET after aborting an initial launch attempt earlier in the day and soared 6 miles above SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas facilities. Unlike the last two tests with SN8 and SN9, which delivered successful launches but exploded on their landing attempts, SN10, not far from its launchpad, stuck a lopsided landing on a slab of concrete. The SN10 appeared to survive its daring landing maneuver for a few moments before being consumed in a fireball.

SN10 standing upright after landing. Image: SpaceX

According to SpaceX’s engineer and live stream host John Insprucker, the launch test’s main objective was to demonstrate the computer-controlled movements of the rocket’s four aerodynamic flaps that steer its descent before landing.

According to a report by The Verge, “at the end of its climb to 6.2 miles, each of the rocket’s three Raptor engines gradually shut down to prepare for a brief free-fall back to land, reorienting itself horizontally with its “belly” facing the ground.” Then followed the “belly flop” maneuver. The three engines of the rocket reignited to swoop itself into a vertical position for landing.

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SN10 slowly descended and softly touched down but leaning slightly to the side. Insprucker declared it a success on SpaceX’s live feed: “Third time’s a charm, as the saying goes. We’ve had a successful soft touchdown on the landing pad.”

“As a reminder, the key point of today’s test flight was to gather the data on controlling the vehicle while reentering, and we were successful in doing so,” he said.

A SpaceX Starship prototype explodes on the pad
NASA Spaceflight

The SpaceX live feed ended before SN10’s explosive demise, however, another feed, provided by the website NASA Spaceflight, continue to roll their cameras and captured the fireball, which saw the 16-story-tall rocket lofting back into the air before crashing back down on its side.

Musk tweeted at 7:35 PM ET in a celebratory mood about the SN10 landed “in one piece,” but jokingly noted two minutes after that the rocket had an “honorable discharge.”

Starship is the American aerospace manufacturer’s next-generation, fully reusable Mars rocket system designed to ferry crews of astronauts and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to Earth orbit, the moon, and eventually Mars. “The last three prototypes SpaceX has test-launched are early versions of the top half of the full Starship system, whose bottom half is a reusable super-heavy booster powered by an array of SpaceX’s new Raptor rocket engines.”

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