A second test flight of SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket on November 18 ended in two explosions. Early indications suggest the self-destruct sequence was triggered just before the main booster engines completed their cycle. The rocket exploded and fell into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the booster rockets also exploded over the Gulf, but it had completed its task before being destroyed.
The SpaceX Starship is a super-heavy design that is the largest rocket ever launched. Both the booster and spacecraft are intended to be reusable designs. Starship uses 33 Raptor rocket engines but has yet to perform correctly.
The initial test of the Starship rocket in April 2023 also ended in disaster. The prototype exploded less than four minutes after launch. SpaceX believes the cause of the explosion was a fuel leak. Dramatic video of the explosion shows that several engines failed to fire on launch. SpaceX said the main thrust engines lost responsiveness after lift-off, triggering the self-destruct system.
In addition to destroying the initial prototype, the first test launch also exposed design flaws to the launch pad. SpaceX did not use conventional technology in the design. The initial test launch flung chunks of concrete a half-mile into the Gulf. Misfiring engines partially caused the launchpad failure.
Despite the destruction of two rockets, the tests are considered successful. SpaceX engineers can collect massive amounts of data from each test flight. It is not uncommon for prototype rockets to fail during testing.
Starship liftoff through successful hot-stage separation pic.twitter.com/L2bH1pJZ2s
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 18, 2023
Saturday’s test flight lasted nearly eight minutes, an improvement over the April test. Engineers with SpaceX said the most valuable part of the test was a successful launch. All of the engines fired correctly on liftoff before the rocket encountered problems. Improvements to the launch pad also paid off. There have been no reports of damage to the structure.
The rocket exploded just before the final firing sequence that would have put it into orbit 150 miles above Earth. SpaceX engineers had planned a partial orbit and expected to crash-land the rocket into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
There are no reports of injuries or damage on the ground from the explosion of the massive rocket. Following the April explosion and subsequent destruction of the launch pad, some environmental groups raised concerns about the damage the launch may cause. Most information about environmental impacts has been kept confidential by the Federal Aviation Administration which oversees all rocket launches.
The goal is to build a reusable launch system to ferry humans to the moon and Mars. SpaceX is one of several companies owned by Elon Musk, the world’s richest person and the subject of considerable controversy in recent weeks.