SN11 Explosion

Elon Musk Reveals Why Last Starship Prototype Exploded Before Landing

Will SN15 be any different?

SpaceX
Image by SpaceX

SpaceX’s Starship prototype SN11 wasn’t long for this world.

During its fateful launch last week, the massive spacecraft took off inside a cloud of heavy fog at the company’s facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, obscuring its ascent to roughly ten kilometers completely.

Several minutes into the flight, SpaceX’s official video feeds cut out. Shortly after, a massive explosion could be heard on various livestreams of the event, with heavy rocket parts raining down from the skies. SN11 was no more.

Now, according to CEO Elon Musk, engineers at SpaceX may have figured out what caused the fourth full-scale prototype to blow up.

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“Ascent phase, transition to horizontal and control during free fall were good,” Musk wrote in a Monday tweet. “A (relatively) small CH4 leak led to fire on engine 2 and fried part of avionics, causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump,” he added.

In other words, a Raptor engine caught fire because of a methane leak, leading to a “hard start” in the engine’s methane turbopump, a component that increases pressure in the rocket’s combustion chamber.

The event was seemingly triggered while SN11 was trying to reignite its engines to slow its descent.

Thanks to the heavy fog on March 30, we weren’t able to watch the explosion unfold on camera. But an animation of what the explosion may have looked like by SpaceX enthusiast Erc X could give us an idea.

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The brief animation shows the prototype bursting into a cloud of shrapnel and smoke well above the surface, as it attempted to right itself following its “belly flop” maneuver during descent.

But Musk is ready to leave SN11’s demise behind. In only a short period of time — we’re still not entirely sure when exactly — the space company’s next Starship prototype, called SN15, will roll out on the launch pad.

“[SN15] has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software and engine,” Musk tweeted shortly after SN11’s explosion. “Hopefully, one of those improvements covers this problem. If not, then retrofit will add a few more days.”

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SN15 will also feature plenty of fixes that address the small methane leak causing SN11 to rip itself into pieces. “This is getting fixed 6 ways to Sunday,” Musk added in today’s tweet.

All we can do is wait and see if the fifth time’s the charm. If Musk is to be believed, SN15 will be an entirely new beast — but there’s no guarantee its launch won’t end in yet another explosion.

READ MORE: Musk says methane leak doomed latest Starship test flight [Spaceflight Now]

More on Starship: SpaceX Makes Progress on “Launch Tower” Meant to Catch Starship Booster

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