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SpaceX’s Starship test goes down in flames for second time

Image credit: reuters

The second full test flight of SpaceX’s bullet-shaped Starship has gone awry, with the craft crashing down to earth in flames during a landing attempt.

The high-altitude experimental launch from Boca Chica, Texas, is a repeat of an accident that destroyed a previous test rocket.

The SpaceX Starship system is a fully reusable; two-stage-to-orbit; super heavy-lift launch vehicle designed for long-duration cargo and, eventually, a passenger-carrying spacecraft.

Yesterday’s accident follows the previous launch in December 2020 of Starship prototype SN8, which exploded on landing after demonstrating its atmospheric re-entry manoeuvres.

The latest test saw the craft reaching its peak altitude of about 10km as planned before hovering momentarily in mid-air. It then shut off its engines and executed a planned “belly-flop” manoeuvre to descend nose-down under aerodynamic control back toward Earth.

After flipping its nose upward again to begin its landing sequence, it tried to reactivate two of its three Raptor thrusters. One failed to ignite. This caused the rocket to fall rapidly to the ground, exploding in a roaring ball of flames, smoke and debris precisely 6 minutes and 26 seconds after launch.

“We’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit,” said SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker. “Reminder - this is a test flight.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk ultimately hopes that Starship will be used to carry people to Mars, possibly within just a few years. It’s the upper stage of his intended Moon and Mars ships, meant to launch atop a mega rocket called 'Super Heavy' that is still being developed.

There was no immediate comment from Musk following the failed test; hours earlier, he said he planned to stay off his favourite social media platform Twitter “for a while.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would oversee an investigation of Tuesday’s landing mishap, as it did following the previous explosion - an inquiry that revealed tensions between Musk and the agency.

SpaceX conducted December’s launch “without demonstrating” that public safety risks posed by “far-field blast overpressure” met the terms of its regulatory permit, according to the FAA. The agency said “corrective actions” the company later took were approved by the FAA and incorporated into Tuesday’s launch.

“We anticipate taking no further enforcement action on the SN8 matter,” the agency’s statement said.

SpaceX is increasingly being used by US government bodies such as Nasa and the Pentagon to supplement their own space-faring activities.

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