SpaceX's latest Starship test flight ended with another loud explosion. The company launched its Starship SN11 prototype today, March 30, at 9:00 EDT (13:00 GMT), successfully flying it up to 6.2 miles (10km).
Almost six minutes into the flight, SpaceX's broadcast cameras froze. Shortly afterward, SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker said "[it] looks like we've had another exciting test of Starship Number 11. Starship 11 is not coming back, do not wait for the landing."
Though the landing attempt was largely obscured due to extremely foggy conditions, a loud explosion was heard and other cameras captured footage of pieces of debris flying near the launchpad.
Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO, gave an update on Twitter shortly after the explosion occurred:
Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn’t needed.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021
Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.
In his tweet, Musk said the explosion was likely caused by an issue with SN11's engine 2. The engine "didn't reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn," he explained. Musk did state, however, that in theory, operating chamber pressure wasn't required for landing.
"Something significant" happened shortly after landing burn started, Musk continued, before suggesting that SpaceX should have a more definitive idea for what caused the anomaly later in the day.
SpaceX's test flight ends with a well-placed crater
Before giving those details, Elon Musk posted another tweet shortly after the explosion saying "at least the crater is in the right place."
At least the crater is in the right place!— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021
Many observers were surprised to see the launch go ahead due to foggy weather conditions that meant the Starship prototype could not be seen from cameras at the side of the launchpad.
Footage recorded by the team at space news outlet NASA Spaceflight did capture audio of the loud boom of SN11's explosion as well as video of pieces of the rocket falling away from the launchpad:
The SN11 flight is one of a series of quick-turnaround test flights for SpaceX's Starship prototype that will eventually fly, and take humans, to Mars.
Today's test flight is the latest of several tests conducted in the last four months, including the flights of SN8, SN9, and SN10. All of these exploded during landing attempts, except for SN10, which exploded a few minutes after landing.
The Starship prototypes are about 150 feet tall, approximately the size of a 15-story building. Each one is powered by three Raptor rocket engines.
Musk gives update on Starship's next 'major technology revision'
SpaceX stresses that despite the series of explosive landings, the test flights have been a success, as they have allowed the company to collect valuable data that will help them to tweak the Starship's design.
In another tweet following today's launch, Musk said the next "major technology [revision will be for] SN20. Those ships will be orbit-capable with [a] heat shield & stage separation system.
He added that "ascent success probability [will be] high. However, SN20+ vehicles will probably need many flight attempts to survive Mach 25 entry heating & land intact."
He also stated that SpaceX’s next prototype, Starship SN15, will roll out to the launchpad "in a few days."
"It has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software & engine," Musk said, in a tweet. While the flight data was sadly lost, we have many milestones to look forward to — especially with the forthcoming technology "revolution" for SpaceX's Starship, expected with SN20.
This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.