SpaceX Starship SN8 explodes on landing during December 2020 test
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Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Starship prototype explodes in spectacular fashion, Elon Musk seems fired up

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Dec 9, 2020, 7:43 PM EST (Updated)

SpaceX definitely put on a high-octane show today…just not the kind with the finish it was probably hoping for. In a high-altitude test of the latest version of the company’s Starship launch vehicle, everything went as planned — until it was time to return to Earth.

In a spectacular explosion caught on video (below), the Starship SN8, named as the 8th iteration in the development program’s roster of prototypes, descended too quickly toward its landing pad at Boca Chica, Texas. As it made contact with the ground, the vessel erupted in a massive blast, sending a wave of fire in all directions. It wasn’t a crewed test, and no bystanders were harmed in the explosion. But it did destroy the prototype — and it made for one heck of an extraordinary sight.

Here's the big moment:

SpaceX on YouTube

...And SpaceX founder Elon Musk's still-optimistic reaction:

Though Musk apparently views the test as successful, the procedure wasn’t without some glitches even before its approximate 5:40 p.m. ET takeoff time. Originally planned for yesterday, the first launch window was postponed after its Raptor engines auto-aborted the launch, and the company did not immediately make public any information about why the engines appeared to have momentarily stalled during the actual flight today.

Via Engadget, the goal of the test was to achieve a peak altitude of 12.5 km (around 8 miles), and to “attempt a record-setting ‘landing flip maneuver’” on its return descent — which it did accomplish. With the enthusiasm of someone stoked on getting fresh data, Musk wrote that the explosion didn’t thwart the mission’s information-collecting efforts, and that low pressure in the craft’s fuel header tank was to blame for the too-fast “touchdown velocity.”

SYFY WIRE’s resident space-gazer Phil Plait monitored the test’s live feed, and tweeted some additional thoughts of his own that lend perspective to what went right — as well as what went wrong at the end.

Though the fiery visuals might suggest a larger setback for the Starship program, the SpaceX team said during its live feed that the company already has its eyes turned toward testing the SN9, the next Starship prototype. Via The Verge, SpaceX has two already-built prototypes waiting in the wings (predictably dubbed the SN9 and SN10) — though the company hasn’t yet unveiled its specific testing plans for either craft.

Today’s SN8 vessel marks the first Starship version to incorporate aero surfaces and a nosecone as part of Starship’s takeoff livery, inching the craft closer — at least to the average spectator — to casting the appropriately spacey-looking silhouette first debuted by Musk back in September of last year.

Ultimately, the Starship program is aimed at becoming SpaceX’s jack-of-all-trades takeoff vehicle for both low-orbit and far-flung missions, carrying uncrewed payloads into near-orbit deployment, ferrying astronauts to the ISS, and transporting crews beyond the Earth-Moon system and toward humanity’s first exploration of Mars.