In a major milestone, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has successfully landed its Starship vehicle from high-altitude for the first time, as it continues its efforts to launch humans to Mars.
But it experienced a dramatic explosion shortly after landing.
Today, Wednesday, March 3 at 6.14 P.M. Eastern Time, the company’s latest Starship prototype lifted off from the company’s test site in Boca Chica, Texas.
The methane-powered rocket, designed to one day carry humans but uncrewed on this launch, then used its three Raptor engines to climb to a height of around 10 kilometers.
After a brief hover the vehicle then began its descent back to Earth, flipping to perform a horizontal “belly flop” and simulate a future return from space.
As it approached the ground, it flipped back to a vertical position and reignited its engines to attempt a landing.
In the past few months, the company has tried and failed to launch and land Starship on two high-altitude tests, with those previous SN8 and SN9 prototypes crash-landing on both occasions.
This time, however, everything went relatively smoothly. Slightly more than six minutes after launching, the vehicle was back safely on Earth – heralding a crucial step in a new era of human spaceflight.
“Third time’s the charm!” SpaceX engineer John Insprucker commentated in the company’s live stream of the flight.
You can rewatch the action unfold below.
However, about 10 minutes after landing, when SpaceX’s live stream had ended, the vehicle was caught on camera by other observers suddenly exploding.
The cause of this subsequent explosion is not yet clear.
It did appear that the vehicle did not properly deploy its landing legs for the touchdown, while a small fire also broke out at its base after the landing.
And so, while the test itself will be deemed a success, there are clearly a few issues that still need to be ironed out with the vehicle.
Starship is SpaceX’s 50-meter tall reusable experimental vehicle designed to one day take humans to Mars and other destinations in the Solar System.
It will launch on top of a large reusable booster called Super Heavy, the two of them stacking up to 120 meters high, for launches to space from Earth.
Together they would be the largest rocket ever flown in history.
In order to reach that goal, SpaceX has been building Starship prototypes in increasing complexity, with today’s flight being “serial number 10” – or SN10.
Their last launch, SN9, saw the vehicle launch and climb to about 12 kilometers before falling back to Earth, ultimately exploding on the ground in a failed landing attempt.
But Musk has been very vocal about how these prototypes are designed to potentially fail, as the company focuses more on rapid iterations than perfecting each one.
SN10, however, seemed to go almost entirely as planned.
“The key point of today’s test flight was to gather data on controlling the vehicle while re-entering, and we were successful in doing so,” said Insprucker.
“We had a nominal ascent, we had a maneuver to place Starship horizontal, and during the subsonic entry it appears we had good control on re-entry using the front and aft flaps.
“As we approached the landing pad, we successfully lit the three Raptor engines to perform that flip maneuver, and then we shut down two of them and landed on a single engine as planned.
“A beautiful soft landing of Starship on the landing pad of Boca Chica.”
Few, despite the subsequent explosion, could argue with that.
Now, SpaceX will continue with its testing phase, as it moves towards launching Starship to space for the first time later this year.