SpaceX Starship explodes spectacularly after successful high-altitude test flight

The prototype rocket went up, did a belly flop and then came in a little too hot.

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3 min read

SpaceX SN8 flew high and landed hard.

SpaceX video capture / CNET

Elon Musk's Starship SN8 prototype, reminiscent of something Buck Rogers might have piloted, fell serenely and silently through the Texas sky for almost two minutes on Wednesday. Then its Raptor engines roared to life, righting the rocket into a vertical orientation in preparation for landing, but it was too little or too late -- or maybe some of both.

A few seconds and one spectacular explosion later, SpaceX's latest next-generation rocket prototype followed its first successful high-altitude flight with a hard landing that's sure to be an instant member of the GIF and meme halls of fame.

SN8 takes a breather before meeting its final, fiery fate.

SpaceX video capture / CNET

SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who had long warned that such a "rapid unscheduled disassembly" was possible, was among the delighted masses, but for more technical than primal reasons.

"Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!" he wrote on Twitter. "Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed. Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!"

SpaceX's latest Starship iteration finally lifted off its launch pad at around 2:45 p.m. PT Wednesday.  An earlier attempt on Tuesday was aborted with just one second left due to an issue with the Raptor engines. 

A few minutes into Wednesday's flight, one of the three Raptor engines stopped firing. According to Musk, each shutdown was intentional and the "engines did great." The rocket continued to climb toward a planned apex of eight miles (12.5 kilometers) as part of its first high-altitude test flight.

SN8 in flight.

SpaceX video capture/CNET

About four minutes into the flight, a second engine shut down and the craft seemed to hover for a while until the final Raptor shut down and SN8 began its free fall back to Earth. As it approached the ground, the Raptors and thrusters situated around the rocket were used to perform a flip maneuver and orient it vertically in preparation for a landing burn like we've become used to seeing with the company's smaller Falcon 9 rockets.

That burn didn't appear to slow down SN8 soon enough or quickly enough as it came in for a rough and explosive landing.

Notably, the wreckage showed that it did hit the middle of the landing pad. You can watch the full spectacular explosion below on CNET Highlights, our YouTube channel with all the best tech, space and science clips from live events around the globe. Whack that subscribe button!

The test flight brings Starship much closer to a trip to Mars than it's ever been, but there's obviously still a long way to go.

"This suborbital flight is designed to test a number of objectives, from how the vehicle's three Raptor engines perform, and the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities of the vehicle, including its body flaps, to how the vehicle manages propellant transition," SpaceX wrote earlier this week.

Musk and SpaceX have continued to improve the company's next-generation rocket intended to eventually transport thousands of Earthlings to Mars, the moon and other destinations.

Over the past 18 months, a handful of short test flights, or "hops," have seen a few prototypes lift off a pad in Boca Chica, Texas, rise to an elevation of about 500 feet (150 meters) and then come back down for a soft landing.

The hops have been remarkable successes so far, interspersed with some dramatic ground test failures along the way.

Next up, SpaceX plans to fly another prototype, SN9, and work up toward the first orbital flight.