Like everything else in 2020, the fourth prototype of SpaceX’s next-generation rocket has gone up in flames. It’s the latest in a series of spectacular explosions to plague the company’s Starship program.
Shortly before 3 p.m. ET on Friday, the Starship SN4 prototype underwent a ground-level trial of its Raptor engine known as a static-fire test at the company’s development facility near Boca Chica, Texas. For the last few weeks, SpaceX has been putting it through a round of routine stress tests there after obtaining licensing from the Federal Aviation Administration for short, suborbital trials.
Friday was the vehicle’s fifth static-fire test, and everything appeared to be going well at first. Though it remains unclear exactly what caused the explosion, in a livestream of the event from LabPadre it looks like a gas leak begins about a minute after engine shutdown, followed by a massive fireball that quickly engulfs the prototype and appears to damage the test site.
To be clear, the Starship SN4 prototype involved in this failed test isn’t related to SpaceX’s historic launch scheduled for this weekend. On Saturday, the company’s set to send two astronauts to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA using its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft.
This prototype was the latest vehicle meant to test out the design for SpaceX’s future Starship, a reusable rocket in development with the aim of carrying up to 100 people and ferrying passengers and cargo to Earth’s orbit, the Moon, and Mars.
SpaceX has lost all three of its previous Starship versions to similar mishaps. The first two exploded under pressure tests while the third came tumbling down in April because of an issue that CEO Elon Musk later attributed to leaky valves. And while the Starship SN4 prototype survived a longer battery of trials than its predecessors, it looks like the series will have to wait on that round of flight tests until at least SN5—which the company has purportedly already begun assembling.