Video The latest prototype of SpaceX's Starship rocket, the SN9, burst into flames as the vehicle attempted to land on Earth on Tuesday.
All eyes were on the craft after its predecessor, the SN8, exploded during touchdown in December in Boca Chica, Texas. You can watch today's detonation in the video below. The accident occurs after six minutes into the flight (skip to 11:51 to see it burst into flames).
Like the previous launch, SN9 was also a high-altitude flight test. The vehicle got ten kilometres (32,800 feet) into the sky before shifting to a near-horizontal position to descend but, unfortunately, it exploded in the air before it could flip the right way up and touch down.
It's not clear what caused the rapid unscheduled disassembly this time. It's possible the rocket suffered the same mishap as SN8, considering how similar both launches unfolded. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk blamed SN8’s blowout on low pressure in the rocket’s fuel tank that caused it to meet the ground at a faster-than-desired velocity.
It has also emerged SpaceX asked the FAA for a waiver to exceed the limits of US federal public safety regulations during the SN8 launch. The regulator declined to issue the waiver, and SpaceX went ahead anyway with the fateful experiment.
As a result of that non-compliance, as the FAA put it, the agency demanded SpaceX carry out an investigation of the explosion and make changes to its public safety procedures in light of the failure. Those changes were approved by the regulator this week, and SpaceX was thus permitted to launch its SN9 craft.
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“The FAA determined late Monday that SpaceX complies with all safety and related federal regulations and is authorized to conduct Starship SN9 flight operations in accordance with its launch license,” a spokesperson for the watchdog told The Register.
The SN9 test was delayed by the FAA from January 28 to today as a result of SpaceX launching the SN8 without the necessary waiver, a postponement that made Elon Musk do an impression on Twitter of his rockets.
Starship is classified as a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle, it’s supposed to be reusable, and performs two fuel burns to propel itself into orbit and beyond. The long-term goal is to ferry colonists and their cargo to Mars.
SpaceX also won a near-billion dollar contract – split between itself, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, and Dynetics – to fly astronauts to the Moon for NASA’s upcoming Artemis mission, due to take place sometime this decade, hopefully.
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For a more short-term goal, SpaceX hopes to run commercial flights to space by the end of the year by putting people inside its Dragon capsule atop a SpaceX Falcon rocket. The mission, dubbed Inspiration4, will require four amateur astronauts to learn how to fly the spacecraft and operate in zero-g conditions.
The first person in the Inspiration4 crew will be billionaire Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of payments processor Shift4 Payments. Issacman, who is qualified to fly military jets, said he will be donating the other three seats to chosen members of the general public. Inspiration4 will be blasted into space from NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
SpaceX was not immediately available for comment on today's explosion, and Musk has said he's taking some time off Twitter. ®