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SpaceX’s Starship lands at last — but then blows up

SpaceX’s prototype Starship super-rocket landed upright today at the end of the program’s third high-altitude test flight — which qualifies as a big step forward, even though the rocket blew up minutes later.

There were actually two launch attempts during today’s hours-long opportunity at the company’s Boca Chica test facility in South Texas. The first one ended with an aborted ignition. In a tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the rocket’s three methane-fueled Raptor engines exceeded a “slightly conservative high thrust limit.”

SpaceX’s launch team raised the allowable thrust limit for another attempt two hours later, and this time the liftoff was picture-perfect. As was the case for SpaceX’s two earlier high-flying Starship tests — in December and February — the 160-foot-tall rocket rose majestically from its pad at the company’s Boca Chica test facility, reaching its target altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

When the prototype, known as SN10, passed through the top of its trajectory and began its descent, it did an eyebrow-raising flip onto its belly — a maneuver designed to brake its speed on the way down. Moments before reaching the ground, SN10 executed yet another flip to return to a vertical position for a retro-rocket landing.

All that was successfully done during the earlier SN8 and SN9 test flights. The landing has been tougher to execute: Both of those earlier tests ended in a fiery crash — due to low fuel-tank pressure in December, and a faulty rocket engine in February.

This time around, the prototype spaceship landed on its feet, although it appeared to lean a bit to the side. “Starship SN10 landed in one piece!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk exulted in a tweet.

The sense of accomplishment was dimmed only slightly minutes later when Starship caught fire while sitting on the landing pad. The massive rocket erupted in a fireball, sending Starship’s remains hundreds of feet into the air.

“SN10 re-flew a lot quicker than any of us expected,” Tim Dodd, also known as the Everyday Astronaut, joked in a tweet.

Elon Musk replied in kind: “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”

SpaceX didn’t immediately say why the rocket exploded, but Scottish rocket scientist and YouTuber Scott Manley speculated that a rupture in the prototype’s oxygen tank was to blame.

Some observers said flames that were seen licking around the base of the rocket as it landed may have contributed to a structural failure. Others pointed to video views suggesting that at least some of the prototype’s landing legs didn’t work properly — which would explain why Starship was leaning on its landing pad.

In any case, it won’t be long until SN11 makes its way to the launch pad for the next Starship test. SpaceX is following a strategy of rapid prototyping, construction and high-altitude testing to hasten the development of a Starship capable of reaching orbit.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to launch Starship atop an even taller Super Heavy first-stage booster for trips to the moon and Mars. And the company is working on a tight timeline.

Just this week, Musk and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced an update in their plans for a Starship trip around the moon. Maezawa’s crewmates for the trip are to be selected within the next few months in a global competition, and spaceflight training could begin this summer for a six-day mission that’s scheduled for 2023. “I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023,” Musk said.

Update for 12:35 a.m. PT March 4: Less than 10 hours after the Starship test in Texas, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida to put another 60 of the company’s Starlink broadband internet satellites into low Earth orbit.

After stage separation, the first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown on a drone ship dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Starlink satellites are built at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. The latest batch joins more than 1,000 other satellites that are already providing connectivity to beta users.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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