SpaceX shared amazing footage of its Starship rocket as it belly flopped through the atmosphere and exploded upon touchdown.
The rocket — a Starship prototype called SN8 — launched on an epic high-altitude test flight from SpaceX's facility near the South Texas village of Boca Chica Wednesday (Dec. 9). SN8 took off at 5:45 p.m. EST (2245 GMT) and soared 7.8 miles (12.5 kilometers) into the air before heading back to Earth.
Video footage captured by a tracking camera on the landing pad shows the final moments of the test flight, including the rocket careening back to Earth in a wild belly flop-like maneuver.
The test flight lasted about 6 minutes and 42 seconds. After reaching its target altitude, the rocket began its descent by shutting down its three Raptor engines, one by one. The 165-foot-tall (50 meters) SN8 then tipped its nose cone forward to do a flip and try to land.
Camera footage from the landing pad captured an up-close view of the vehicle as it plunged toward Earth. In the video, which SpaceX shared on Twitter, you can see canards on the nose cone and wing flaps on the base of the rocket move to help steer SN8 during its descent. SN8's landing attempt was nearly successful until one of its engines cut out, causing the rocket to plummet to the ground too quickly and explode in a dramatic fireball.
Despite the failed landing, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk shared his excitement over the results of the SN8 test flight on Twitter.
"SN8 did great! Even reaching apogee would’ve been great, so controlling all way to putting the crater in the right spot was epic!!" Musk said in a tweet.
SN8 did great! Even reaching apogee would’ve been great, so controlling all way to putting the crater in the right spot was epic!!December 10, 2020
"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!!" Musk explained in another tweet.
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!!December 9, 2020
SpaceX plans to launch additional prototypes to further develop Starship. One, called SN9, is nearly built and expected to launch on a similar test flight fairly soon. The Starship vehicle and Super Heavy rocket launch system is designed to be fully and rapidly reusable, meaning these vehicles will be capable of making many trips from Earth to Mars and back.
"Mars, here we come!" Musk said in another tweet after the SN8 test flight.
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Samantha Mathewson joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.