SpaceX has been working on its new heavy-lift rocket for the past few years, and the company has been good enough to stream all of the tests live. Naturally, we’ve seen the Starship blow up a few times because space is hard. Most recently, the Starship SN10 prototype landed after its high-altitude test flight only to explode a few minutes later. Now we know a bit about why that happened and how SpaceX aims to solve this problem with SN11.
Like the Falcon 9, SpaceX intends to make the Starship a reusable vehicle. That means the vessel has the ability to land vertically either on a floating platform or on a standard launchpad. However, SpaceX is still working out the kinks there. The SN8 and SN9 prototypes also failed the reusability test, but in much more dramatic fashion. SN10 looked like it was doing fine after it touched down, which made the ensuing explosion all the more perplexing.
According to CEO Elon Musk on Twitter, the SN10 was actually going slightly too fast when it landed. At ten meters per second, the impact was enough to crush the legs and part of the skirt. This damage led to the explosion several minutes later. SpaceX crew members were seen fiddling with the SN11 rocket at the company’s Boca Chica test facility. They lowered each landing leg and tested them to make sure they deploy correctly. It’s unclear if they’ve been reinforced because of the SN10 test.
SN10 engine was low on thrust due (probably) to partial helium ingestion from fuel header tank. Impact of 10m/s crushed legs & part of skirt. Multiple fixes in work for SN11.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 9, 2021
Musk says SN10 landed hard because it was most likely in low thrust mode due to helium ingestion from the fuel tank header. This pressurization system was added to SN10 on Musk’s order to compensate for an issue with SN8. He says it seemed like a good idea at the time, which is fair — no one has done this stuff before. He also floated the idea of landing on a net or a bouncy castle but lamented those options are not sufficiently dignified.
SpaceX intends to make the Starship its primary rocket in the future, taking on roles like orbital launches, Earth transport, and Mars colonization. Musk has continued promoting an aggressive timeline for all these plans, but the Starship is far from finished. Even when all the Starship kinks have been worked out, the company still has to build the Super Heavy first stage that will help the Starship get out of Earth’s gravity. The first crewed launch will most likely be the lunar orbit demo with Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. SpaceX currently projects that will happen in 2023, which is a very ambitious timeline.
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