Test flight ends with explosion, but only after landing

The last two test flights ended with a huge fireball. Instead of sitting upright on the landing pad, the “Starship” missiles hit hard and exploded. The third attempt, announced by US space company SpaceX this Wednesday, went better, something.

As with the last two tests in December and February, it should go ten kilometers up and back. The unmanned rocket landed safely back on the ground – and then went up in flames a few minutes later.

Why the missile exploded was not initially clear. “The main goal of today’s test flight was to collect enough data on how to control the spaceship upon reentry,” said SpaceX engineer John Insprucker. “And we have successfully achieved that.”

In the future, these rockets – combined with a massive first stage called “Super Heavy” and refueling in orbit – will bring either people or up to 100 tons of material to the moon and Mars. This means they could compete with the NASA project “Space Launch System”, which has been promoted as a new moon rocket up to now.

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Tin can with potential

Starship is visually very different from other missiles. While most are painted white and contain many composites, the Starship appears like a tin can. SpaceX has discarded carbon fiber materials for the shell and uses chrome-nickel steel because it can cope better with the high temperatures when it re-enters the atmosphere. In addition, the shiny surface reflects a lot of infrared radiation from the sun into space.

Also noticeable are the movable wings in the upper and lower part, with which the rocket is controlled during the last few kilometers before landing. The rocket initially flies horizontally.

The four wings stabilize this position as a parachutist does with his arms and legs after leaving the aircraft. Only later does the Starship go vertical, balance itself with the wings and is braked by the ignited engines. At least in theory. During the last attempt in early February, an engine failed and the rocket hit.

The design is also unusual: the payload department, usually a separate block in the tip of a rocket, is firmly connected to the drive module of the upper stage. The result is a 55-meter-tall tower with three engines that run on liquid oxygen and liquid methane. Several of these “cans” have already been manufactured at the SpaceX test center in Boca Chica, Texas. In addition, the 65-meter “Super Heavy” boosters are already being built and will be tested soon.

Investor freedom

The high speed that company boss Elon Musk demands of his employees is well known. It can be read, for example, from how often access roads, the beach and the airspace are closed for tests and this restriction will soon be lifted because the rocket was not yet ready to go – this has also happened in the past few days. Starship SN-10 was originally supposed to take off in February, now it comes down to this Wednesday.

Rapid, sometimes radical changes are typical of SpaceX and distinguish the company from conventional players in space travel. This also includes dealing with problems. Two catastrophic landings in a row? SpaceX will of course share the fire images on social networks. Musk tweeted bravely: “We were too stupid.” You should have ignited all three engines and thus compensated for the failure. Get up, dust off the dust, carry on.

With their unusual construction made of stainless steel, SpaceX rockets deviate from well-known recipes, but could …Foto: Official SpaceX Photos

“The many crashes are reminiscent of the 50s and 60s, the beginning of space travel,” says Martin Sippel from the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Back then you couldn’t simulate as well as you do today, you just tried it out and learned from failures. “Musk also uses this principle to save time, and sells it as a spectacular campaign.” However, he could also afford it, after all, he invested a lot of his own money. “If it were a purely state-funded project, it wouldn’t work that way.”

The DLR researcher specializes in simulating space systems and has taken a closer look at the Starship concept. Even if it comes across as unusual as a tin can, the rocket is basically suitable for space flights and landings on solid celestial bodies, says Sippel. In detail, however, there could still be a problem. “I’m thinking of the pivoting wings, for example,” he says.

At low speeds, as they now occur with the ten-kilometer hop, this is not critical. “When the Starship returns from space into the earth’s atmosphere at high speed, the gaps and edges between the wings and fuselage will be extremely stressed.” The first orbital flight, which could take place this year, will show whether they can withstand this.

Private to the moon

More goals are soon to come: In 2023, the Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, who has already paid a deposit, will orbit the moon. In 2024 an unmanned flight to Mars, later also astronautical flights to the Red Planet and possibly to other destinations such as Jupiter. Years should always be viewed with caution in space travel, especially SpaceX.

“Instead of two years until the moon flight, it should be five or six,” says Sippel. Even more time will pass before the trip to Mars. But that doesn’t mean that SpaceX can’t get anything done. “They are already flying the crew transport to the international space station, competitor Boeing is lagging behind.” The company could also contribute to NASA’s lunar ambitions. In 2020, she received $ 135 million to convert Starship for a manned landing on the moon. The wings are useless there due to the lack of atmosphere.

The US space agency actually wants to use its “Space Launch System” (SLS) for moon flights, which is currently being developed. But there are delays and budget increases. At a cost of more than a billion dollars per launch, the super rocket won’t take off too often. In addition, because it cannot be reused, it will hardly be possible to reduce costs.

Starship and the super heavy first stage are said to be completely reusable and therefore cheaper. SLS still has strong advocates, but that could change, says Sippel. “I think it is quite possible that in the end SpaceX will prevail and take over the moon flights.” (with dpa)

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Test flight ends with explosion, but only after landing