WATCH: SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype, SN11, explodes in midair

Hopes for a successful flight and landing were dashed when SpaceX’s heavy-duty rocket exploded before making it to the ground.
By | Published: March 30, 2021 | Last updated on May 18, 2023

SN8, a previous prototype, on the launch pad in Boca Chica.

SpaceX fans following the story of the Starship spacecraft are used to seeing the company’s prototypes explode. And lately, it’s been happening at the very end of Starship’s high-altitude tests. But today, the latest Starship prototype, SN11, didn’t even get to attempt a landing. Instead, it exploded in midair after reaching peak altitude and carrying out its famed bellyflop maneuver.

SN11 took off at around 8 A.M. local time on Tuesday, March 30, pushing through heavy fog as it ascended above Boca Chica, Texas. Between camera issues and the fog, it was nearly impossible to see what was happening as SN11 approached its intended peak altitude of 6 miles (10 kilometers).

Like the past several Starship test flights, the goal of this flight was not only for the rocket to safely reach its target altitude, but also safely slow its descent before softly landing on Earth’s surface. In the past several months, the SN8SN9, and SN10 Starship prototypes have all exploded during or shortly after their landing attempts.

Today, SN11’s onboard cameras were cutting out throughout the flight, and cameras on the ground were unable to capture anything due to the heavy fog. About 5 minutes into the flight, SpaceX’s feed temporarily came back up, showing SN11 in it bellyflop position, which it uses to slow down during descent.

As the rocket approached the landing site and the engines attempted to reignite, the onboard feed once again froze. Seconds later, ground cameras at the landing site captured debris raining from the sky.

According to a tweet from SpaceX’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, “Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start.” According to the same tweet, more information about what caused the explosion will be available after the team is able to inspect the area this afternoon.

Luckily, all of these Starship prototypes tests are carried out without humans onboard or near the launch or landing site. Still, some of those reporting nearby had cameras damaged or knocked offline as the pieces fell.

The next test flight for SN12 has not yet been announced. But there’s little doubt that, whenever it is, many will be holding their collective breath in hopes of Starship’s first fully successful landing.