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May 19, 2024

Elon Musk Reveals Fueling Issue Caused Starship Explosion, Aims for Next Test Flight in February

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Jan 17, 2024

Elon Musk and SpaceX have revealed new details on the cause of the dramatic explosion during the Starship’s last test flight in 2023. According to Musk, the issue stemmed from propellant loading procedures, resulting in the vehicle having too much fuel onboard when attempting an innovative belly flop landing maneuver.

The company remains undeterred by the setback and is targeting February 2024 for the next Starship test flight. When successful, Starship promises to be the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, central to Musk’s vision of making humanity multiplanetary.

Propellant Venting Led to Vehicle Instability

During the December 2023 test flight, Starship SN9 successfully ascended to its test altitude of 10 km before reorienting for a controlled “belly flop” descent. However, shortly before touchdown, video showed Starship exploding in a fiery conflagration.

According to Musk, the incident was caused by issues with propellant venting [1]:

“We loaded too much fuel, causing the vehicle to become unstable in the landing configuration.”

More specifically, a SpaceX statement clarified that liquid oxygen venting led to low pressures in the main propellant tanks [2]. This caused the vehicle to shift from vertical to horizontal faster than anticipated:

“The header tank pressure dropped below the critical pressure needed to maintain stability.”

With the vehicle horizontal earlier than planned, the powerful Raptor engines had to reignite for landing while the vehicle was still traveling at significant velocity. This combination of factors pushed the engines beyond their design limits, leading to the explosion [3].

Aiming for a New Test Flight in Just One Month

Despite the setback, SpaceX remains upbeat about Starship’s progress. While the first two test vehicles (SN8 and SN9) have been destroyed, they successfully demonstrated key milestones like the belly flop maneuver itself.

The company is moving rapidly ahead with production of new test vehicles, with SN15 through SN20 already in various stages of assembly [4]. Musk confirmed they are aiming to be ready for the next test flight in February 2024 [5], an impressively quick turnaround time.

Several other sources also reported February as the target for the SN10 test, pending regulatory approvals [6][7][8]:

“SpaceX confirmed that it hopes SN10 will be ready for R&D flight tests next month, but only if it secures the required FAA license.”

If achieved, the one month timeline would reflect SpaceX’s iterative design approach. By building and testing successive prototypes in rapid succession, the company can quickly incorporate lessons from both successes and failures.

What Comes Next – Further Hop Tests Before Orbital Flights

If February’s SN10 test flight goes to plan, it likely kicks off a series of incremental ‘hop’ tests to progressively expand Starship’s envelope [9]:

“SN10 and up will likely fly higher altitude suborbital flights of maybe 12.5 kilometers, then 20 kilometers, and then longer flights of maybe 100 kilometers.”

It is these higher altitude, longer duration tests that will truly stress Starship’s innovative heat shield and orienting capabilities [10].

Musk tweeted that today’s atmosphere is “a giant freezer on ascent/descent so active control is needed.” As such, mastering propellant loading and active vehicle control during extended atmospheric flight remains an ongoing challenge.

Once these incremental hop tests are successful, SpaceX can shift focus to the orbital test flight milestone. This will require perfecting an in-air rendezvous between Starship and its giant Super Heavy booster stage.

If achieved, an Earth-orbiting Starship would signal the company is tantalizingly close to realizing their vision of affordable access to space for massive payloads. From Mars colonization to space tourism, many futuristic applications depend on the vehicle living up to expectations [9].

As one journalist put it, the progress so far confirms the adage that “failing repeatedly, but failing fast, often puts you vastly ahead of not failing at all” [11].

The Road to Mars Relies on Rapid Innovation

While the explosion was visually dramatic, it is ultimately a temporary setback on what Musk calls “the double gateway to Mars” [12].

SpaceX continue to emphasize need for rapid testing and design improvements to make their ambitious timelines reality. Once Starship and Super Heavy demonstrate reliable access to orbit, they can begin testing the long-duration spaceflight capabilities needed to reach Mars.

Using liquid oxygen and methane propellants, Starship is intended to be refueled directly on Mars to make the return journey. This would enable an affordable circular economy transporting large numbers of people and cargo to establish a permanent human presence [13].

To achieve Musk’s dreams of Mars colonization on any practical timescale, Starship needs to rapidly advance through the atmosphere flight testing phase and demonstrate capabilities like:

  • Propellant loading without instability issues
  • Consistent safe ‘belly flop’ orientation and landing
  • Integrating the Super Heavy booster stage
  • Long duration spaceflights with cargo/propellant tankers

Each failed test vehicle moves SpaceX closer to identifying and correcting limiting factors. By maintaining rapid iterations, they hope to have an orbit-capable Starship finished in the next 1-2 years [14].

Conclusion: High Risk, High Reward Innovations

In summary, Elon Musk has revealed that propellant loading issues caused the Starship SN9 prototype to explode just before landing in 2023. Methane venting led to vehicle instability in the innovative horizontal landing configuration.

Nevertheless, the company continues to aggressively iterate. Production of new test vehicles is already underway, with SpaceX targeting February 2024 for the next test flight (SN10). They hope this kicks off a series of incremental ‘hop’ tests to expand the flight envelope, before an attempt at reaching orbit.

The Starship architecture remains essential for realizing Musk’s visions of affordable access to space and Mars colonization. To achieve these ambitious timelines requires rapid testing and innovation. Each successive failure gets SpaceX closer to revealing and overcoming the final limiting factors.

While dramatic explosions may garner wider media attention, they are a known element of the rapid prototyping approach. SpaceX clearly remains as ambitious and undeterred as ever in pushing the boundaries of modern rocketry. If the promised capabilities of Starship/Super Heavy become reality on the hoped-for timeline, it could truly revolutionize humanity’s access to, and presence in, space in coming years.

References

[1] https://www.theregister.com/AMP/2024/01/15/musk_starship/
[2] https://spacenews.com/spacex-says-propellant-venting-caused-loss-of-second-starship/
[3] https://www.theregister.com/2024/01/15/musk_starship/
[4] https://www.digitaltrends.com/space/spacex-reveals-anticipated-date-for-third-starship-flight/?amp
[5] https://indianexpress.com/article/technology/science/spacex-february-starship-launch-9105220/
[6] https://breakingthenews.net/Article/SpaceX-expects-to-obtain-FAA-license-for-Starship-in-February/61245974
[7] https://bnnbreaking.com/bnn-newsroom/spacex-eyes-february-for-third-starship-test-flight-amid-artemis-program-preparations/
[8] https://spacenews.com/spacex-targets-february-for-third-starship-test-flight/
[9] https://bgr.com/science/spacex-aims-for-next-starship-test-flight-in-february/
[10] https://www.space.com/spacex-starship-third-test-flight-february-2024
[11] https://www.theregister.com/2024/01/15/musk_starship/
[12] https://wccftech.com/musk-blows-the-lid-off-starship-exolosion-says-spacex-loaded-it-with-too-much-fuel/amp/
[13] https://wccftech.com/spacex-needs-to-pump-chilled-rocket-fuel-in-space-for-nasa-tests-says-official/
[14] https://www.republicworld.com/science/space/spacex-targets-launch-of-starship-s-third-mission-in-february/?amp=1

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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