Last night, the ‘Starship’ super-heavy rocket, owned by Elon Musk’s space exploration technology company SpaceX, exploded after four minutes into launch. SpaceX later reported that the explosion was triggered manually, as the personnel issued a command to terminate the flight for both the rocket and the booster.
According to reports, the ‘Starship’ super-heavy rocket, owned by Elon Musk’s space exploration technology company SpaceX, exploded last night after four minutes into launch. Following the launch failure, Musk took to Twitter and indicated that the next launch may have to wait for several months.
① The Largest and Most Powerful Rocket System in History
The SpaceX Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket system ever manufactured by humanity, with a total length of approximately 120 meters, comprising two parts: the super-heavy rocket booster and the spacecraft cabin. It is capable of carrying both crew and cargo and is reusable.
On the 17th of the month, SpaceX attempted the inaugural launch of the Starship. However, the launch was aborted 40 seconds before liftoff due to technical issues. SpaceX reported that there was a pressure problem in the lower-stage super-heavy rocket booster and that at least 48 hours were needed for preparations before the second launch attempt.
Technically, The Starship refers to the spacecraft, which is located at the top of the rocket. The bottom of the rocket is a booster, called the “super-heavy,” which provides the real thrust. The complete Starship is a super rocket with a length of 120 meters, a diameter of 9 meters, a takeoff weight of about 5,000 tons, and a takeoff thrust of up to 7,590 tons.
Its shell is made of 304 stainless steel, which is commonly used in our daily lives. The Starship has a payload capacity of over 100 tons and can significantly reduce launch costs through complete reusability. Musk stated that in the future, the Starship’s super-heavy booster will be reusable up to 1,000 times, while the upper stage of the Starship can be reused up to 100 times. A single Starship can perform up to three launches per day, and launch costs can be reduced to as low as 2 million or even 1 million USD.
Behind the Starship’s high payload capacity, low cost, and high performance is a significant technological leap and risk, particularly in the first stage, which is the Super Heavy, the first stage or booster of the Starship launch system. The Super Heavy is powered by 33 Raptor engines that use cryogenic methane (CH4) and liquid oxygen (LOX) and can be fully reused, re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and returning to the launch site.
The Raptor engine is a reusable methane-oxygen staged combustion engine that powers the Starship system and provides twice the thrust of the Falcon 9 Merlin engine. The Starship is powered by six engines – three Raptor engines and three Raptor Vacuum (RVac) engines – specifically designed for use in space vacuum. The Super Heavy, on the other hand, is powered by 33 Raptor engines, with 13 located at the center and the remaining 20 positioned around the perimeter of the rear of the booster.
According to SpaceX’s official website, as the most powerful launch system ever, the Starship will be capable of carrying up to 100 people for long-duration interplanetary flights.
② Man-Made Triggered Explosion
According to reports from foreign media, not all engines of the Super Heavy booster of Starship were ignited during the launch, with three of the 33 Raptors apparently not lighting up during liftoff and two shutting down during the brief flight.
Nevertheless, the power of the remaining 28 engines was enough to lift Starship off the ground. After about 33 seconds of flight, the engines emitted a brief and bright flash, though it’s unclear whether this indicated any anomalies. Starship continued to climb and passed through the Max-Q challenge at approximately T+80 seconds.
The next important milestone was supposed to occur within three minutes of liftoff: the shutdown of the Super Heavy engines, followed by stage separation and the illumination of six Raptors on the upper vehicle.
However, things didn’t go as planned. Starship started to spin wildly and tumble through the sky. Additionally, the Super Heavy engines seemed to continue firing long after the target cutoff point, which was 2 minutes and 49 seconds after liftoff.
The Starship continued to tumble for about a minute before exploding at T+3 minutes and 59 seconds, possibly due to SpaceX activating the spacecraft’s flight termination system at that time.
SpaceX later stated that the explosion was triggered manually, as the staff sent a command to terminate the flight for both the rocket and the booster.
However, SpaceX did not expect everything to go smoothly, as new rockets often fail on their first test flights, especially given that the Starship is larger and more complex than most rockets.
SpaceX emphasized that the focus was on collecting data and responding appropriately to whatever ultimately happened. “This is a development test right now. It’s the first flight of the Starship. The goal is to collect data, as we said, clean up the launch pad and get ready to fly again,” said John Insprucker, SpaceX’s Chief Engineer during the company’s live broadcast. “So you never know what’s going to happen. But as promised, there is excitement. The Starship gave us a fairly spectacular ending, and it was an incredibly impressive test so far.”
After the explosion of the Starship, Musk also tweeted, “Congrats SpaceX team on a great flight! The next one will be even better.”
③ First Launch Cost Approximately $3 billion, Development Cost Incalculable
Elon Musk once revealed to the media that the initial launch cost of the Starship was approximately $3 billion. However, when asked about the development costs, Musk did not give a direct answer. Instead, he said, “The price is actually not important. If you have a soap factory, how much did the first soap cost? If it cost $10 million, but then eventually, if it’s in large-scale production, it will cost a few cents.” Musk’s goal is to reduce the cost of each flight to $2 million.
It’s worth noting that in 2018, Musk predicted that the total development cost would not exceed $10 billion. However, SpaceX has not yet publicly released any financial information regarding the project. According to foreign media speculations, the development of the Starship cost approximately $5 billion, with most of the funds coming from the company’s internal resources.
Moreover, the US government has invested heavily to ensure the success of SpaceX. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has pledged to fund at least $2.9 billion to assist SpaceX in developing the Starship and to send NASA astronauts to the moon.