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What Happens after SpaceX’s Prototypes Crash?

Four Starship SN prototypes have crashed in recent months, but each crash leads to an upgrade.

Starship SN11 credit: SpaceX

What Happened to Starship SN11

SpaceX launched another experimental rocket as part of its often frustrating rocket development program. Starship SN11 prototype was the company’s fourth Starship test flight.

SpaceX Starship SN11 launched right on time, but soared in a sky full of fog. However fog theoretically should have been no threat to a Starship rocket.

Starship SN11 credit: SpaceX

The real challenge that the fog posed was preventing the public from seeing anything of the launch attempt. But, fortunately enough remote streaming cameras set up near SpaceX’s launch facilities managed to capture some of it. The coverage provided the bare minimum for SpaceX’s fans who wanted to catch SN11’s landing attempt.

Per an official webcast, there were no noticeable defects during the launch. The only errors were few intermittent fires burning parts of the rocket’s three Raptor engines. Intermittent fires have been occurring in Starship prototypes since SN8 first flew.

However things escalated fast at T+5:49. Starship SN11 attempted to reignite all three of its Raptor engines to propulsively flip into a vertical landing position. After at least one successful re-ignition, SpaceX lost onboard video and telemetry feeds.

Based on NASASpaceflight’s pad-adjacent camera, the explosion took place one or two seconds after that attempted ignition. Starship SN11’s test flight ended 20 seconds earlier than any other Starship prototype.

Why SN11 Exploded

Starship SN11 pieces scattered everywhere and even left a big hole in the road where a Raptor landed. Since SN11 had the most fuel on board compared to previous prototypes and was at a higher altitude, the debris field was quite large.

SN11 Debris Credits: Jack Beyer NASA Spaceflight.com

A spectator held a piece of debris which was blown 5 miles away from where SpaceX launched and attempted to land Starship rocket SN11.

The Debris hit the ground nearly 5-10 seconds after the sound of the explosion roared, which confirms that the explosion happened in midair. For now, SpaceX has no clear answers on what went wrong with Starship SN11 but there are two possible scenarios.

One scenario suggests that Starship SN11 have failed to reignite at least two of the Raptor engines. SN11’s failure might have triggered the onboard flight termination system (FTS) that is designed to explode to prevent Space accidents or to ensure public safety.

However, the most plausible scenario suggests SN11 failed its re-ignition and flip attempt. This triggers an almost immediate explosion that would tear the rocket into pieces.

CEO Musk immediately went to Twitter after the explosion. Musk said that Raptor “engine #2 had issues on ascent”, but such issues can’t explain the rocket’s midair failure. Elon Musk went on and confirmed that whatever issue must have started “shortly after the landing burn started.” 

Musk Rises to the Rescue

SN11 Debris Credits: Jack Beyer NASA Spaceflight.com

CEO Elon Musk immediately weighed in and began offering solutions. Musk revealed details on future launches and even announced the schedule planned for future upgrades to SpaceX’s next-generation launches. Musk hopes these upgrades will alleviate whatever issues led to Starship SN11’s premature demise.

The launch attempt failed within six minutes after launch, leaving Starship SN11 as the least successful fourth three-engine high-altitude prototype.

On the bright side, SpaceX managed to gather some data and was able to uncover new failure modes. As Elon insists to learn from his failure to improve t, this might be the best news SpaceX has received.

Also, according to Elon Musk, SpaceX is planning to complete and launch Starship SN15 “a few days” from now, earlier than its initial flight date. Musk affirmed that SN15 will have substantial upgrades, saying that “it has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software, & engine[s].”

Musk also hinted at part of SpaceX’s near-term plans following SN15’s upgrade. He confirmed that Starship prototypes from SN20 onwards will be “orbit-capable” with more advanced improvements.

With all that’s been said and done, SN11’s midair demise will certainly not stop SpaceX from continuing its developmental program. However, hopefully this failure brought in more ideas than damage.

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