SpaceX launched a 16-story prototype of its Starship Mars rocket system 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) above Boca Chica, Texas on Tuesday. The prototype was supposed to attempt a soft landing, but the spaceship slammed into the ground sideways and exploded. This is the second time a Starship flight has seen the vehicle destroyed upon landing.

SN9 during it’s landing attempt.

Through the south Texas haze on Tuesday, SpaceX pulled off a stunning high-altitude test flight of a Starship rocket prototype. But the vehicle failed to stick its landing.

The roughly 16-story test vehicle, called Starship serial No. 9, met the same fate as its predecessor, SN8: It slammed into the landing pad, resulting in a catastrophic explosion.

SN9 lifted off a pad in Boca Chica, a remote strip of land in southeastern Texas, around 3:25 p.m. ET under the thrust of three truck-size Raptor rocket engines. The vehicle then soared to 6.2 miles (10 kilometres), gradually cutting its engines on the way up.

Using just one engine, SN9 hovered at the peak of its flight for about 30 seconds, then cut that engine and belly-flopped toward the ground. The test emphasized Starship’s need to control its descent from space using small wings.

As SN9 fell back to Earth, the rocket reignited its engines in an attempt to quickly turn itself upright. But it appeared to lack enough thrust from at least one engine, causing the ship to lean to its other side and hit a concrete pad at an angle, exploding its remaining fuel reserves. SpaceX confirmed Tuesday night via its website that one of the engines failed to reignite during the landing attempt.

Chunks of the steel ship flew thousands of feet into nearby coastal prairie. When the dust and smoke cleared, only the charred residue of SN9 remained.

Artist impression of a Starship.

SpaceX also live streamed the flight. A camera near the landing pad recorded the descent from below and the explosion from a different angle:

“As you can see from the scene, we had — again — another great flight up to the 10-kilometer apogee,” John Insprucker, an aeronautical engineer at SpaceX, said during a live broadcast of the flight. “We’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said that it would be overseeing an investigation into the explosive landing, just as it did when the SN8 flight didn’t go as planned.

The FAA’s top priority in regulating commercial space transportation is ensuring that operations are safe, even if there is an anomaly.” an FAA spokesperson said in a statement. “Although this was an uncrewed test flight, the investigation will identify the root cause of today’s mishap and possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops.”

Starship SN8 in 2020.

Starship SN8 test flight also failed to stick the landing

Sticking the landing is a key part of SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s quest to realize Earth’s first fully and rapidly reusable rocket system. SN9 represents only the upper stage of a two-part system: A roughly 23-story booster called Super Heavy is designed to one day heave the Starship spaceship toward orbit.

Eventually, Musk has said, the Starship-Super Heavy system could fly people to orbit, the moon and to Mars, where he hopes to establish the first human civilization on another planet. However, the company must first figure out how to land the rocket back on Earth in one piece, and then quickly recycle it for its next launch. So far, its two attempts at flying Starship prototypes to high altitudes have not been able to land without exploding.

SpaceX first launched a Starship of this kind in early December. The prototype (Starship SN8) roared tens of thousands of feet above the company’s south Texas facilities. As SN8 neared the ground, low pressure in a propellant tank caused the spaceship to slam into a concrete pad and explode.

Late Tuesday, SpaceX updated its Starship website with a statement that included details about SN9’s flubbed landing.

“During the landing flip manoeuvre, one of the Raptor engines did not relight and caused SN9 to land at high speed and experience a RUD, (rapid unscheduled disassembly).”

SpaceX still claims both the SN8 and SN9 tests as successes, though, since they demonstrate that the rocket can fly to suborbital altitudes and use its wing flaps to control its plummet back towards Earth.

“This is a test flight, the second time we’ve flown Starship in this configuration. We’ve got a lot of good data in the primary objective: To demonstrate control of the vehicle in a subsonic re-entry,” Insprucker said during the broadcast.

“These test flights are all about improving our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.”

Watch video:

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