SpaceX has made the Falcon 9 the heart of its launch operations, sending both cargo and now people into space. However, the private spaceflight company plans to transition its operations to its Starship rocket in the future. Developing that craft has been slow going, though. Just a month after nailing a pressurization test, the Starship SN4 prototype exploded during an engine test. It’s not clear what happened, but CEO Elon Musk has offered some hints.
The Starship will eventually have enough power to send large payloads to destinations in the outer solar system, but first SpaceX needs to get the kinks worked out. The company ran through a few prototypes trying to pass a “cryo” pressurization test that simulates full fuel tanks in the vacuum of space. The fourth vessel (SN4) was the first to pass that test in late April.
The Starship explosion happened late on Friday, the day before arguably SpaceX’s biggest success yet when it successfully launched astronauts to the International Space Station. Of course, the Starship and Falcon 9 are separate projects and the explosion did not affect NASA’s launch timetable. The rocket was supposed to remain stationary and ignite its engines, known as a static fire test. The team completed that test, but the rocket began releasing clouds of vapor shortly afterward. The explosion takes place at about 1:24 in the video below.
Following the historic Falcon 9 launch, a Reuters reporter managed to ask Musk about the Starship incident. “What we thought was going to be a minor test of a quick disconnect ended up being a big problem,” Musk said. That seemingly confirms speculation that the problem had to do with the rocket’s ground support equipment, specifically the quick disconnect umbilical.
The quick disconnect is an apparatus that connects to the bottom of the rocket to load fuel and relay telemetry. It’s designed to quickly detach from the Starship during launch. It’s likely the “test” Musk referred to was assessing the ability of the quick disconnect module to disconnect and reconnect. In the process, it may have leaked fuel that then ignited.
SpaceX is currently manufacturing three more Starship prototypes. The first of those will have three Raptor engines, allowing it to perform a high-altitude test flight. SpaceX’s plans for the other prototypes are unknown at this time. They’ll probably all mate with a redesigned quick disconnect panel that doesn’t cause explosions.
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