SpaceX's Starship SN10 Successfully Landed, Then Exploded in Fire

Elon Musk estimated a 60 percent chance for this first successful landing that later exploded.
Brad Bergan

SpaceX successfully launched and landed the third Starship test vehicle — called SN10 — from the company's Boca Chica, Texas facility.

The vehicle lifted off at roughly 6:14 PM EST after earlier delays. It successfully touched down on the landing pad at roughly 6:21 PM EST. However, the Starship was leaning slightly with small fires, which led some commentators to wonder if it would topple over.

And, roughly 10 minutes later, the entire vehicle exploded from a possible methane leak.

A live video posted to YouTube by SpaceX is featured near the end of this article, but for the explosion, be sure to play the first video, and skip toward the end.

Starship explodes minutes after landing, possible methane leak

SpaceX's Starship exploded in a colossal ball of fire after the vehicle's first-ever landing from what some suspect was a methane leak. Shortly before landing, it was visually clear that the side of the vehicle was on fire as it made a soft touchdown, and continued to burn lightly.

Minutes later, the entire vehicle exploded, leaving only the cone and what might be the methane tank lying on the Boca Chica landing area.

Starship successfully lands in Boca Chica for the first time

Starship successfully touched down in Boca Chica after what seemed to be a perfect flight. As of writing the vessel is on fire, but this is the first time any prototype of the vehicle landed without exploding!

Starship reached maximum altitude, flipped perfectly

SpaceX's starship has shut down its first and second Raptor engines, and then successfully performed a "belly flop" at 4 minutes and 40 seconds. As of writing, it's in free-fall toward the landing zone in Boca Chica.

There is one minute left in flight, and if all three Raptor engines successfully ignite, one will be shut down as two more guide the vessel to what will hopefully be a soft landing.

SpaceX's Starship 10 just lifted off from Boca Chica, Texas

The Starship SN10 vehicle's main goal is to land without incident — where the last two iterations, SN8 and SN9, exploded in two blazes of glory upon landing. SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk estimated a roughly 60% chance of a successful landing this time — which means the probability is likely a little higher than that, knowing Musk's tendency to underestimate imminent launches.

Just like the earlier two Starship flights, which happened in February and also in December 2020, SpaceX will send SN10 to an altitude of roughly 6.2 miles (10 km) using all three Raptor engines.

Once Starship reaches its planned altitude, it'll switch from main propellant tanks to smaller ones close to the top of the vehicle, and execute a "belly flop" maneuver, flipping itself over to simulate the motion of returning from orbit. 

This trajectory will serve two crucial functions: allowing Starship to "bleed off" extra velocity while also preserving the hull of the ship without the need for a colossal heat shield.

Japanese billionaire wants eight people to join him on a SpaceX moon mission

The hard part lies in successfully reigniting at least two of the three Raptor engines as the vessel nears the ground — to decelerate enough for a controlled, soft landing. Whether or not it goes down this way, everyone knows the landing will be entertaining.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) already granted approval to SpaceX for today's launch, with a launch window opening at 10:00 AM EST. Regardless of holds, the weather was wonderful, with clear and sunny skies in the South Texas region.

This test launch comes on the heels of a major update from Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on the "dearMoon" mission — the planned maiden voyage of Starship to the moon, the first ticket for which Maezawa bought. But on Tuesday, he announced the opening of a competition for eight "everyday people" to apply for a free ride on Starship with him — on a mission around the moon that will see humans go farther from low-Earth orbit than any before.

Starship test launches are a sign of things to come

In his announcement, Maezawa said the competition to "join the crew" will welcome "talented" and "creative" people who aspire to inspire others about space travel and the future of humanity — to share their dreams of a better future with those grounded on Earth.

Along with a tweet from the billionaire, a video announcement included some commentary from Musk on the readiness of his Starship for missions — which might go forward in 2023. "I'm highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023, and that it will be safe enough for human transport by 2023," said Musk, in the video. "It's looking very promising."

As ambitious goals go, 2023 is a whopper, but the journey is sure to be as fun as the final execution, whenever it happens. Even Maezawa confessed he had some nerves about the upcoming flight, but emphasized how his curiosity outweighs anxiety when it comes to a Starship flight to the moon — since today's flight test along with many more coming will serve as a sign of things to come for SpaceX.