Dec. 9 (UPI) — SpaceX sent its new-generation Starship rocket into the Texas sky just before sunset Wednesday and and saw it crash-land in a massive fireball on its launch pad.
The test flight was the first high-altitude attempt for the vehicle, which lifted off at 5:45 pm. EST from the company’s launch and development site in Boca Chica, about 180 miles south of Corpus Christi.
Elon Musk‘s company offered no commentary or reaction to the flight, which included the possible loss of one of three Raptor engines. But the rocket appeared to reach the intended altitude — nearly 8 miles high.
That model rocket, eyed as a transport vehicle to the moon and possibly Mars, also performed a flip maneuver mid-flight that the space company had planned.
“Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!” founder Elon Musk tweeted after the explosive landing.
The test flight had been scheduled to take off in midafternoon, but SpaceX called a hold during the countdown without explanation.
Later in the afternoon, the countdown resumed, in anticipation of the early evening liftoff. At 5:45 p.m., the rocket’s three engines ignited, sending the prototype steadily higher.
During midflight, video showed one of the three engines cutting out. SpaceX offered no explanation.
After reaching the flight apogee, or highest point, the Starship fell over horizontally and began to glide — as designed — using its adjustable fins. Upon nearing the ground, the fins adjusted to point the engines toward the surface again.
Although the engines fired, the rocket descended rapidly and burst into a fireball upon contact with the pad.
SpaceX has tested prototypes of the rocket in Boca Chica for more than a year. The prototype that flew on Wednesday, SN8, is the first to feature a nosecone and lower fins.
The flight was intended to test the features of the rocket as it ascended to about 41,000 feet. The flip maneuver was a “first for a vehicle of this size,” SpaceX said on its website.
The company performs similar flip maneuvers with the booster stage of its Falcon-9 rocket, turning the booster around mid-air so that the engines can be used to decelerate as the unit returns to Earth for a landing.
SpaceX will spend days poring over the data obtained from the test.
“With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the probability of success,” the company said.
Although SpaceX is known for Falcon 9 rockets taking supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, the company always had a bigger goal: travel to Mars.
To get to the Red Planet, a more powerful rocket than Falcon 9 is needed. Starship is that rocket. SpaceX also intends to develop a version of Starship for a moon landing in the next few years as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
While SpaceX also is known for reusing the first-stage booster of Falcon 9, the company plans to make Starship entirely reusable.
Starship’s Raptor engines, which also are under development, run on “methalox” — rocket fuel composed of liquid oxygen oxidizer and explosive liquid methane.
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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Crew-1 lifts off from Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo