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SpaceX Starship soars on first high-altitude test, explodes on landing

December 9, 2020

— A prototype for a commercial moon and Mars lander flew a successful high-altitude test flight, up until it went to land, when it slammed into the ground and exploded in a tremendous fireball.

The SpaceX Starship spacecraft (serial no. 8 or SN8) lifted off on its first suborbital flight on Wednesday (Dec. 9) from the company's Boca Chica launch site in South Texas. The six-minute and 42-second "epic" flight was deemed an overall success by SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

"Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks and precise flap control to landing point!" Musk exclaimed on Twitter, just minutes after the flight had ended. "We got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team, hell yeah!!"

"Mars, here we come!!" Musk tweeted.

Starship | SN8 | High-Altitude Flight Test. Click to enlarge in a new, pop-up window. (SpaceX)

Standing 160 feet (50 m) tall and 30 feet (9 m) in diameter, Starship is designed to be a fully reusable spacecraft capable of carrying passengers and cargo into Earth orbit, to planetary destinations and between destinations on Earth. In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a $135 million contract to further develop Starship to serve as a human landing system for future Artemis missions to the moon.

For spaceflights, Starship is designed to launch atop SpaceX's even larger Super Heavy rocket, adding another 230 feet (70 m) to the steel vehicle's full height. For Wednesday's test flight, which was targeted to reach about 8 miles high (12.5 km), the SN8 prototype flew on the thrust of three Raptor engines (Starship will fly with six engines when operational).

"Engines did great!" said Musk. "SN8 did great! Even reaching apogee would've been great, so controlling all [the] way to putting the crater in the right spot was epic!!"

SpaceX's live webcast of the launch showed Starship climbing skyward as its engines cut off in succession at one-minute and 40 seconds, three minutes and 15 seconds and four-minutes and 40 seconds into the ascent. The vehicle then performed a planned "belly flop," testing the Starship's body flaps as it plummeted horizontally towards the ground.

At six minutes and 30 seconds, a single engine relit and the Starship flipped back into the vertical, a first for a vehicle of this size.

Descending to a concrete landing pad adjacent to where it launched, the Starship appeared like it might just stick the touchdown.

"Fuel header tank pressure was low during [the] landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high and RUD," tweeted Musk, referring to the explosion as a "Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly."

When the smoke and flames cleared, all that was left of SN8 were some charred remains.

"Serial number 9 (SN9) is up next," SpaceX said in a post-test update posted to its website.

Prior to Wednesday's suborbital flight, SpaceX had completed two low-altitude flight tests with Starships SN5 and SN6 and accumulated over 16,000 seconds of run time during 330 ground engine starts, including multiple Starship static fires and four flight tests of its reusable Raptor engine. To date, SpaceX has built ten Starship prototypes, with production rates accelerating, according to the company.


SpaceX's Starship SN8 prototype launches on its first high-altitude flight test from Boca Chica, Texas on Dec. 9, 2020. (SpaceX)

SpaceX's Starship SN8 prototype lands hard and explodes on Dec. 9, 2020 at the company's Boca Chica, Texas launch site. (SpaceX)

SpaceX's Starship SN8 prototype seen on the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas prior to its Dec. 9, 2020 high-altitude flight. (SpaceX)

SpaceX's Starship SN8 prototype seen at the company's Boca Chica, South Texas launch site prior to its Dec. 9, 2020 high-altitude flight. (SpaceX)

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