Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) plans to conduct an orbital test flight of its Starship next-generation launch vehicle system were dealt a blow on Monday when the company's booster prototype sitting on the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas faced an anomaly resulting in an explosion. SpaceX has rolled out Starship's first stage booster, dubbed Booster 7 and the upper stage spacecraft to the pad as it aims to conduct a series of tests to verify their systems before launching them to orbit later this year and land both of them to demonstrate reusability with what will be the world's largest rocket once operational.
However, footage courtesy of dedicated onlookers revealed that the 230 feet tall Booster 7 was not so lucky as all of its engines caught fire as SpaceX tried to test their start sequence, confirmed the company's chief Mr. Elon Musk late night on Monday Eastern Time.
SpaceX's Booster 7 Catches Fire As Company Starts Testing Rocket Engines
The test took place at 16:20 Texas time yesterday and it was picked up by the live cameras installed by the dedicated onlookers at NASASpaceflight. Since the entire Starship program is currently under development, SpaceX rarely shares details of its tests and conducts them at its own pace as it experiments with the rockets.
Prior to the explosion, Booster 7 was on the launch pad and thick condensate was flowing from its bottom, which indicated that SpaceX was either bleeding fuel or oxidizer through the engines. Starship uses SpaceX's Raptor 2 rocket engines and these use liquid Oxygen as their oxidizer and Methane as a fuel.
However, just as the condensate had started to flow, a large explosion took place at the bottom of the booster that ended up shaking the launch tower and completely engulfing the bottom of the rocket. Rocket engines are divided into major components and out of these, the combustion chamber is where the fuel and the oxidizer come together for ignition and thrust generation.
This chamber is directly connected to the engine's nozzle, and any fuel that flows through it comes out of the bottom of the engine as well. Today's test revealed that SpaceX was bleeding either fuel or oxidizer through the engine, and Mr. Musk confirmed later on that it was a fuel-rich environment that led to the explosion. However, the ignition was accidental since local authorities had not sent out any warnings to residents beforehand.
The massive fireball was not the only explosion, as roughly an hour later the booster started to vent again which was then followed by several smaller explosions and much smaller fires away from the booster. An hour after this, at roughly 20:10 local time, SpaceX's drones and pickup trucks arrived at the scene to inspect the damage.
Later in the night Musk shared details about the test as he explained that managing super cool fuel is tricky due to the presence of oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. He explained that this fuel rapidly evaporates, and since oxygen is present in the air, the resulting mixture is susceptible to explosions. The executive added that his company uses sensors to detect the presence of this mixture, but did not add whether these sensors were the reason it had failed to detect the mixture that led to an explosion yesterday.
He also shared that SpaceX will now use methods to get rid of this mixture before it leads to hazardous outcomes. The latest test involved testing the booster's 33 engines together in what is referred to as a 'spin-start' test. An engine such as the Raptor 2 uses high-powered pumps or turbines to pump fuel and oxidizers into its combustion chamber, and this test uses a high-pressure inert gas (such as helium) to get these pumps moving and bring the fuel from the tanks to the engine.
Musk explained that SpaceX had tried a spin-start test for all of the 33 engines at the same time and moving forward the company will refrain from doing so. Additionally, he revealed that upon visual inspection, the booster and its engines seem to have escaped damage but SpaceX has shut down the pad for the night and more details will be available tomorrow.
It is possible that Booster 7's major components and engines remained unharmed due to the explosion since it took place outside and appeared strong due to the properties of liquid Oxygen. SpaceX continued to vent condensate through the engines even after the explosion, indicating that the pump systems were functional even as the booster's base saw a massive fireball. However, it is also likely that the company transports the booster back from the pad to its inspection facilities, and postpones a highly anticipated static fire until it is confident about the integrity of its systems.
You can watch the recorded explosion here (starts at 43:15):
For more SpaceX explosions, do check out:
- [UPDATE-2] SpaceX Lands Mars Rocket Prototype For First Time In High Altitude Test Yet Prototype Blows Up!
- SpaceX’s Latest Engine Test Ends Up In Flames And Huge Smoke Cloud
- Engine Fire Due To Fuel Leak Led To Prototype Rocket Explosion Explains Musk
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