SpaceX’s Starship SN3 prototype imploded on the test bed

Chris Davies - Apr 3, 2020, 1:03 pm CDT
SpaceX’s Starship SN3 prototype imploded on the test bed

SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype trial didn’t quite go according to plan, with a fairly dramatic implosion during cryogenic proof testing early on Friday morning. Started on Thursday, it was meant to show that the full-scale Starship prototype, known as SN3, was capable of surviving the sort of pressures it’ll eventually face in flight.

The process started on Wednesday, with an ambient temperature test. SpaceX workers then loaded the spacecraft up with nitrogen, only this time chilled and at the sort of pressures SN3 would face during actual flight conditions.

That didn’t go so smoothly. In the early hours of Friday morning, SN3 began to crumple and collapse in on itself. Venting gas, the whole thing came apart on the Boca Chica test station at SpaceX’s Texas facility.

Video captured of the test by NASASpaceflight shows the moment it all went wrong. SpaceX’s Elon Musk hasn’t said what caused the fault yet, but in a tweet he suggested the test might have been the problem, not SN3. “We will see what data review says in the morning,” Musk suggested, “but this may have been a test configuration mistake.”

Nonetheless, it’s a disappointing setback for SpaceX, and indeed for the Starship vehicle. This is the third prototype to have been destroyed during testing, Starship Mk1 and Starship SN1 also falling foul of pressure tests. Construction of Starship SN4 began last month.

Had these pressure tests gone according to plan, the expectation is that SpaceX would have moved Starship SN3 on to flight tests. These would be fairly low-level initially, using three Raptor engines: first with static fire trials, and then moving on to 150 meter hop tests. As the name suggests, these see the spacecraft rise roughly 500 feet and then return to the ground.

It’ll now be Starship SN4 which takes on that challenge, ahead of what SpaceX expected would be its actual mission: high altitude testing. Right now it’s unclear what sort of knock-on impact this latest test failure will have on SpaceX’s overall timeline. So far, that has included an orbital test flight of the vehicle sometime this year.

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