SpaceX has lost its third and final Starship prototype, SN10, shortly after a high-altitude test at close to sunset at its launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The prototype actually managed to land in one piece, but went up in flames soon afterward. During the unexpected failure, it appeared to perform a mini-launch that was likely the result of any remaining propellant escaping through the Raptor rockets.
SpaceX previously lost the identical SN8 and SN9 prototypes during landing while conducting similar high-altitude tests. In both cases, the cause of the loss was the failure of a Raptor engine to ignite during descent, which reduced the prototype’s ability to produce enough thrust for a safe descent.
That did not seem to be the case for SN10. All three Raptors ignited properly and all seemed well when it returned to the launch facility. However, a fire crew was seen battling flames around the base of the prototype, but were unable to contain it enough to prevent the loss of the prototype just ten minutes later.
SpaceX had delayed the launch test earlier on Wednesday due to a concern about the amount of thrust capacity in the engines. Later that day, the companies engineers and technicians thought they had the problem pinned down enough for a safe launch and landing. They may have had reason to be nervous, considering that lack of thrust was an issue for the previous two high-altitude tests.
There is no word on how much the loss of the three prototypes might slow down progress on the development of the Starship rocket. Elon Musk had previously said that SpaceX could start sending Starship rockets to Mars as early as 2024. He is, however, known for his ambitious timelines that are often delayed due to development issues.
Despite the loss, work on other projects appear to be humming away at SpaceX. The company recently announced plans to build a manufacturing facility in Austin that will do work on the Starlink satellites. NASA has tapped its Falcon Heavy to launch some of the first components of the Lunar Gateway station that will orbit the Moon.
Private citizens who are interested in going into space in its Crew Dragon now include Shift4 Payments founder Jared Isaacman, who is reportedly giving away seats on the flight to promote Shift4 and raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Retired astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria also plans to lead a mission for Axiom Space later this year.
SpaceX may build new full-sized prototypes for Starship and get its development program back on track. Despite the losses, SpaceX engineers say that they got good data from all three test flights and may have already made improvements. SN10 did not explode until well after it had already landed.