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Starship SN8, as the prototype is called, soared through the air for nearly five minutes as it flew over the Gulf of Mexico before returning to the launch site where SpaceX hoped it would make a precise landing reminiscent of how the company lands its Falcon 9 rockets, its workhorse. The flight was intended to help SpaceX collect data on how SN8 could re-enter Earth’s atmosphere after returning from an extraterrestrial mission and heading to a precise landing point.

Starship SN8, however, did not survive this test. On the final leg of its flight on Wednesday, a problem with the fuel system caused the rocket to crash to the ground and explode in a colorful explosion.

SpaceX’s prototype Starship takes off over the Texas field. (AP)

Musk still calculated the mission as a victory.

“Fuelhead tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown speed to be high and RUD, but we got all the data we needed!” Musk said in a tweet. (RUD stands for “Unscheduled Quick Takedown” or, loosely, rocket explosion).

SpaceX has been known to accept fiery setbacks during the rocket development process. The company maintains that these accidents are the fastest and most efficient way to collect data, an approach that distinguishes the company from its close partner, NASA, which prefers methodical and slow testing to dramatic outbreaks.

But Wednesday’s test flight was far better than many expected after Musk gave the vehicle a one-in-three chance of surviving the test flight.

Elon Musk is one of the richest people in the world.
Elon Musk is one of the richest people in the world. (Getty)

After unexpectedly stopping the countdown clock during an earlier launch attempt on Wednesday, SpaceX refueled the SN8 and set its sights on a 4:40 p.m. CT takeoff time. That was just 20 minutes before the SpaceX launch window closed. The company must complete the launch within a designated time period that is sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that aircraft or boat traffic do not interfere with the launch.

Large puffs of steam could be seen coming out of the rocket during refueling.

But that’s just oxygen, which stays so cold inside the rocket that it remains liquid, while the excess oxygen boils down the sides when it hits the warm Texas air. Because spacecraft don’t have atmospheric oxygen fueling their engines in outer space, rocket engines must bring their own oxygen on board to interact with the fuel, giving the engines their fiery boost. The SpaceX spacecraft runs on liquid oxygen, also known as LOX, and methane. SpaceX opted for methane, rather than a fuel known as RP-1, because methane fuel can, theoretically, be produced on the Moon or Mars. That makes gas a good choice for rockets destined for long-distance travel to the solar system.

In this image taken from video released by SpaceX, the company's spacecraft is engulfed in flames and breaks apart upon landing after a test flight.
In this image taken from video released by SpaceX, the company’s spacecraft is engulfed in flames and breaks apart upon landing after a test flight. (AP)

When the countdown clock reached zero, the SN8 fired up its three massive Raptor rocket engines, each of which can put out up to six times more thrust than an engine on a Boeing 747, according to the SpaceX website.

Then SN8 left the launch pad and began its ascent over the southern Texas landscape.

Less than two minutes into the flight, one of the three Raptor engines shut down. Because SpaceX did not publish a detailed flight plan for this test, it is unclear if everything worked as expected. But Musk suggested on Twitter that the first leg of this flight had gone exactly as planned.

About a minute later, another of the three Raptor engines died, leaving one engine to power the remainder of the SN8’s climb.

Almost five minutes after the flight, the last Raptor engine stopped firing. SpaceX’s goal was for the rocket to reach 40,000 feet or more, although it is unclear exactly how high the rocket traveled.

After reaching the cusp of its course, the SN8 began to roll, reorienting the rocket so that it was landing on its side.

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That mirrored exactly how Musk described Starship’s intended landing method during a September 2019 media event. He announced it as a one-time maneuver that would cause the rocket to plunge back into the air with its belly pointing toward Earth while its four fins moved slightly to keep it stable. It’s a maneuver Musk said is intended to mimic how a paratrooper would fall through the air, rather than the direct vertical descent to Earth that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets employ when they arrive to land.

As the spacecraft neared the ground, the rocket would fire its engines and the vehicle would swoop back to a vertical position just before landing.

The SpaceX spacecraft exploded in a ball of flame.
The SpaceX spacecraft exploded in a ball of flame. (AP)

To make this possible, SN8’s Raptor engines are designed to “gimbal”, which means to pivot slightly from side to side, and “accelerate”, which means to adjust the amount of thrust each of the engines puts out, giving you gives the rocket maximum precision as it goes. maneuvers through the air. The SN8 also has a reaction control system, or RCS, which refers to small thrusters mounted on the outside of the rocket. These also help guide the ship’s stunts and can be seen by shooting near the top of the rocket.

The SN8 followed that move almost exactly on Tuesday. Shortly before landing, all three Raptor engines were re-ignited, the rocket reoriented and approached the precisely designated landing site.

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But, due to a last-minute problem with pressure in the SN8’s fuel tank, the landing was not as smooth as expected. The apple-green flames, the result of chemicals burning in the engine’s flame, were quickly engulfed by a giant plume of fire and smoke as the SN8 crashed to the ground.

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