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SpaceX's Starship SN3 prototype collapses in pressure tank test

SpaceX began testing its newest prototype of a massive Starship vehicle in Texas overnight, and video footage suggests that process did not go smoothly.

Starship is the company's massive spacecraft designed to colonize Mars and tackle other heavy-lift deep-space missions. For about a year now, SpaceX has been building and testing various prototypes of the vehicle, including a miniature Starhopper that flew in August 2019. The latest version, dubbed SN3 (short for Serial No. 3) was scheduled to undergo a series of tests culminating in short, "hopping" flights. But something went wrong in an early test conducted yesterday (April 2).

"We will see what data review says in the morning, but this may have been a test configuration mistake," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a post on Twitter

"Some valves leaked at cryo temp. Fixing & will retest soon," Musk added in a follow-up tweet

Video: Watch SpaceX's Starship SN3 collapse during pressure test
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SpaceX's Starship and Super Heavy rocket in pictures

Video of the SpaceX's SN3 test captured by Spadre.com and NASASpaceflight.com showed the vehicle's pressure test failure from different angles.

The test, a cryogenic pressure test, was intended to demonstrate that SN3 could withstand the high pressure of very cold fuel that such a vehicle will need to endure before flights. In another tweet, Musk said that SN3 had passed an ambient temperature test the night prior to the failed cryogenic pressure test.

The cryogenic pressure test would have been followed by a static fire, during which the vehicle's engines would have briefly lit while SN3 was held in place, and a hopping test, when SN3 would have made the first flight of a full-size Starship prototype. 

SpaceX's Starship SN3 prototype collapses during cryogenic pressure test on April 3, 2020 at the company's Boca Chica, Texas facility. (Image credit: SPadre.com)

Instead, the video footage taken near SpaceX's Starship hub in Boca Chica, Texas, appears to show SN3 collapse under pressure. 

SN3 is the third SpaceX Starship prototype to be lost during testing. The company's first Starship Mk1 was destroyed during a failed pressure test in November 2019. Its successor, the Starship SN1 (or Serial Number 1), was lost in a pressure test in Feb. 28 of this year.  A subsequent prototype, called Starship SN2, successfully passed the same pressure test on March 8. Each iteration of Starship has included tweaks and improvements over its predecessor.

The Starship SN3's failed test means that the company will presumably move on to SN4 as it continues to sort out design issues. Musk had previously said he wanted to see that vehicle reach as high as 12 miles (20 kilometers) above Earth's surface. 

SpaceX has been pushing hard on Starship development in recent months despite the test failures. The spacecraft (and a planned megabooster called Super Heavy) form the core of SpaceX's plan for deep-space missions to the moon, as well as for Mars colonization.

During a recent Falcon 9 rocket launch carrying 60 Starlink internet satellites las month, SpaceX put out a call for welders and other professionals to join the company's push to build new Starships. Musk also held a career day in February at the Boca Chica site to interview new workers. 

Earlier this week, SpaceX unveiled a users' guide for Starship describing the different payloads and missions, crewed and uncrewed, it could fly for customers. 

SpaceX has already signed one customer for a Starship flight. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has booked a trip around the moon on the spacecraft, with a target launch date of 2023.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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  • Sam
    It looks like atmospheric pressure collapsed it. They did not keep the vent valve open. It failed because of too low a pressure in the tank. Not too high. A new way to destroy a rocket.
    Reply
  • Curtis Quick
    It looks like it was a mistake in the testing procedure and not a design problem. The upper tank was being filled while the tank below appears to be empty (as there was no frost covering the lower tank to indicate that it was also pressurized with liquid nitrogen. Also, I don't think the lower tank was filled with water, as it would have gushed out when the lower tank crumpled). I think this was an unintentional mistake. I can't imagine they expected an empty tank, even a steel one, could hold up when thousands of tons of liquid nitrogen filled the tank above. It appears that somebody was not thinking clearly when they designed the test.

    This being the case, I don't see this slowing down SN4. Although I can certainly imagine someone losing their job over this.
    Reply
  • SibylTheHeretic
    Admin said:
    SpaceX's newest Starship prototype, called SN3, collapsed early Friday (April 3) during an overnight pressure tank test.

    SpaceX's Starship SN3 prototype collapses in pressure tank test : Read more
    Maybe the vehicle that gets you into space and the vehicle that you use while in space should not be the same vehicle. Would it be easier to build something that can leave and return to earth and something different that will always remain in space? One design to deal with gravity and atmosphere, and one design to deal with a vacuum and radiation.
    Reply