The end of 2020 saw some of the best attempts for creating the framework of regular space travel. Space X shared footage of its Starship as it cruised through the atmosphere and exploded as it landed during a recent testflight.  

The starship prototype called SN8 left SpaceX’s facility near South Texas Village on December 9, 2020, at 2245 GMT, flying 12.5 kilometers into the air before coming back to Earth. A tracking camera on the landing pad revealed the test flight’s final moments, capturing a wild belly flop-like motion. 

This flight lasted 6 minutes and 42 seconds, with the rocket shutting down its three major Raptor engines on reaching its target altitude. The 50 meters SN8 then tipped forward in preparation for landing

The footage from another camera on the landing pad captured a view of the spacecraft plunging towards Earth. With an excellent vantage, it was even able to observe the canards (a small fore-wing) on the nose cone and wing flaps on the rocket base strategically built to steer the rocket as it made its way back to Earth. 

The landing attempt would have been successful had it not been for the cutting out of one of the engines which made the rocket hit the ground too quickly and explode in what most people describe as a dramatically explosive fireball. 

SpaceX - Starship SN8

Space X designed the SN8 prototype of the Starship spacecraft to travel to the moon and then on to Mars.

It has attracted a lot of attention with revolutionary a design, landing techniques and being commercially funded. With its sophisticated technology and the unusual landing maneuvers involved, it certainly captivates attention.  

It is a little different from historical spacecraft which returns to Earth via aerodynamic drag slowing re-entry. Both produce excess heat during deceleration and re-entry which requires heat shielding.

However historical rockets then utilize parachutes and land in the sea, where they must be recovered at considerable effort, cost and time.  

By comparison Starship SN8 has been designed to be fully reusable while still carrying over 1000 tonnes of cargo into orbit.  

Explaining the belly-flop method 

One of the things that caught the attention of several space enthusiasts was this rocket’s belly-flop landing method. This is a short flip-and-landing burn enabling the rocket to touch the ground softly upon its return to Earth.  

This was made possible by the four flaps which control free fall. Space X showed the whole world that it was possible to manage a belly flop thanks to the SN8 test flight.

The next time SpaceX SN8 heads into space, it is expected that the lessons and experience from previous flights will ensure that the landing goes smoothly. 

The company is expected to demonstrate a successful mission and prove this new system of reusable landing can significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight. 

Fortunately, the video shared by Space X does show the flaps were working well, and the fligt was landing under control, until there was a an issue with the engine cutting out. The problem was not with the method of landing itself.  

Why did the spacecraft crash? 

During the landing process, there was a green flash indicating an increase in engine temperature. The green color comes from the copper component within the engine systems themselves.

According to the company, problems with the fuel pressure were detected just as the craft was about to land and therefore, it was unable to reduce it’s velocity sufficiently. The high pressure oxygen combined with the remaining fuel load caused a large explosion that destroyed the rocket.

SpaceX has put out a press release to advise that this issue is being addressed and will definitely be fixed in the SS9 model

They look forward to further testing which will cement the new method of landing as the future approach to coming back from space. 

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