SpaceX's Starship launch spread potentially harmful debris far and wide

Elon Musk said SpaceX could be ready to launch Starship again "in 1 to 2 months," as researchers scramble to understand the impact of the first launch.
Chris Young
Starship shortly after launch.
Starship shortly after launch.

SpaceX / Twitter 

SpaceX launched its fully-stacked Starship rocket for the very first time last week.

Though the mission ended with a dramatic explosion, it was largely seen as a success — given the fact that SpaceX collected a wealth of data before purposefully pressing the self-destruct button as Starship started to veer off course.

It's all in keeping with SpaceX's fail fast, learn fast approach, as the company is already looking ahead to the next orbital launch attempt of Starship.

However, reports are also emerging of some of the potentially harmful, unintentional effects of the launch. SpaceX, the FAA, and others are now investigating the destruction caused by Starship's bevy of Raptor engines, starting with a massive crater at the launch pad.

SpaceX assesses damage, eyes next Starship launch attempt

The 394-foot-tall (120 meters) Starship rocket reached a maximum altitude of 39 kilometers (24 miles) before engine failures caused it to start to spiral and deviate from its planned trajectory. This caused SpaceX to trigger the termination system as Starship was flying over the Gulf of Mexico.

Following Starship's explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded the Starship program as part of a standard procedure "mishap investigation", a report from CNBC explains.

It's well-documented by now that Starship's launch mount wasn't ready for the power of the massive launch system's 33 next-generation Raptor engines. It doesn't include a flame trench, which will likely now be added ahead of the next launch attempt.

It seems that SpaceX slightly underestimated the effect of those Raptor engines — capable of producing an enormous 17 million lbs of thrust — on the Fondag concrete used at the launch facility. Fondag is a blend of concrete that is high-strength and heat-resistant, making it ideal for launch infrastructure.

In a recent tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said, "3 months ago, we started building a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount. Wasn't ready in time [and] we wrongly thought, based on static fire data, that Fondag would make it through 1 launch. Looks like we can be ready to launch again in 1 to 2 months."

Musk added that the engines had only been fired up to half throttle during static fire tests, leading to the discrepancy between SpaceX's expectations and the resulting crater.

Concerns over Starship's environmental impact

Researchers and residents of the area surrounding SpaceX's Starbase launch facility in South Texas are also investigating the wider effects of the launch. One potential cause for concern is the massive amounts of sand and ash-like particulate matter Starship kicked up as it slowly climbed off the launch pad.

In an interview with CNBC, Jared Margolis, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, stated that Starship's debris footprint exceeded the threshold set out by SpaceX during the FAA's environmental assessment for the launch.

SpaceX told the FAA that in the event of an "anomaly", they expected debris to fall within a one-square-mile radius of the launch site. In reality, CNBC reports, the nearby town of Port Isabel reported broken windows from the shockwaves as well as dust and particulate matter coating homes.

Researchers are hard at work aiming to understand the aftermath of Starship — it's currently unknown whether that particulate matter is dangerous to touch or breathe in as well as the effect it could have on local soil.

Though SpaceX could be ready to launch Starship again within the next couple of months, FAA clearance may be another challenge altogether.

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