SpaceX Starship Prototype Explodes During Pressure Testing


SpaceX initially wanted to conduct a high-altitude test of its Starship vehicle last year, but setbacks pushed the timeline into 2020. Now, SpaceX may be looking at another delay. The company’s Starship SN1 prototype just blew its top at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility. The rocket was undergoing a pressurization test, but unlike a fuel tank test several months back, this one wasn’t supposed to end in an explosion. 

SpaceX moves fast and isn’t afraid to make the occasional mistake. So, it can be hard to keep all the explosions and almost-explosions straight. In January of this year, the company intentionally pushed a Starship tank to the point of failure to test its capabilities. In November of last year, SpaceX lost a “Mk1” prototype rocket during pressure testing that was not supposed to destroy anything. This latest incident seems like a repeat of that November anomaly. 

According to initial reports, the test failure on February 28th happened when the vehicle was being loaded with liquid nitrogen. The rocket appeared to split apart near the bottom, which launched the top section skyward. Photos of the site the following day showed little of the Starship SN1 survived. SpaceX likely intended to use the SN1 vehicle for a static test fire with at least one Raptor engine, but none were mounted at the time of the incident. 

SpaceX hasn’t issued any official statement about the explosion, but CEO Elon Musk posted a tongue-in-cheek tweet of a video of the explosion with the caption “So … how was your night?” He clarified the company’s focus is on the Starship SN2 prototype that will eventually head up for high-altitude testing. Of course, it has to survive pressure testing first. 

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The loss of the Starship SN1 is unfortunate, but it wasn’t a vital piece of the development. The company has filed requests with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation for permits to launch the Starship. The applications ask for clearance for six months beginning in mid-March. 

Musk eventually sees the Starship taking over all SpaceX launch operations from the Falcon 9. This reusable vehicle has enough power to send payloads to the moon and Mars. It’s also the key to Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars by later this decade. Elon Musk does tend to be overly optimistic with such timelines, but he’s determined to send people to the red planet at some point.

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