CAMERON COUNTY, Texas -- A SpaceX rocket prototype, known as SN10, soared over South Texas during test flight Wednesday before swooping down to a pinpoint landing near its launch site. Approximately three minutes after landing, however, multiple independent video feeds showed the rocket exploding on its landing pad.
SpaceX's SN10, an early prototype of the company's Starship Mars rocket, took off around 5:15 pm CT and climbed about six miles over the coastal landscape, mimicking two previous test flights SpaceX has conducted that ended in an explosive crash. Wednesday marked the first successful landing for a Starship prototype.
"We've had a successful soft touch down on the landing pad," SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said during a livestream of the event. "That's capping a beautiful test flight of Starship 10."
It was unclear what caused the rocket to explode after landing, and the SpaceX livestream cut out before the conflagration.
He added that SpaceX has several other prototypes already in production and the next, SN11, will be ready to roll out for another test flight 'in the near future."
SpaceX's first launch attempt on Wednesday, around 3 pm CT, was aborted at the last tenth of a second. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet that the abort was triggered by pre-set standards around the rocket's thrust, which Musk described as "slightly conservative." He added that the company would increase the rocket's thrust limit, giving the rocket more wiggle room for getting a go-ahead for liftoff. The company then recycled the SN10's fuel ahead of the second, successful attempt.
Insprucker, who hosted the company's webcast of the launch on Wednesday, said that the primary goal of the test was to gather data on how the vehicle's flaps would control the Starship prototype as it plummets back to the Earth.
Musk first explained Starship's intended landing method during a September 2019 media event. He billed it as a unique maneuver that would see the rocket dive back through the air with its belly pointed toward the Earth as its four fins shift slightly to keep it steady. It's a maneuver that Musk said is intended to mimic how a skydiver would fall through the air, rather than the straight vertical descent to Earth that SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets employ when they come in for landings.
Perfecting the belly-flop landing maneuver is essential to "enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond," according to the company's website.
SpaceX intends to use Starship for a variety of purposes, including shuttling paying customers between cities at breakneck speeds, potentially aiding NASA's Moon landing efforts, and, eventually, launching cargo and human missions to Mars.
Starship is still in the early stages of development. A full-scale prototype has yet to be constructed. SpaceX has not yet begun publicly testing Super Heavy, a gargantuan rocket booster that will be needed to propel the Starship to Earth's orbit or beyond.
Musk said during a recent interview with podcast host Joe Rogan that he expects Starship will be conducting regular flights by 2023, and he hopes the vehicle will reach orbit by the end of this year. It's not clear if SpaceX will hit that deadline. The aerospace industry, and Musk in particular, is notorious for announcing projects that take far longer - and tally much higher expenses - than first anticipated.
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