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Third SpaceX Starship Prototype Crumples Under Testing

By Rich Smith - Apr 3, 2020 at 2:52PM

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Third time wasn't the charm.

One month ago -- nearly to the day -- SpaceX assembled what could have been its first operational "Starship" prototype in a field in West Texas, and began pressure testing the vehicle to ensure it could survive a test flight.

It failed that test.

The rocket's fuel tank burst, gas escaped, and without sufficient internal pressure to retain its form, the SpaceX "SN1" crumpled to the ground and imploded.

A few days later, SpaceX ran a different test on a different prototype, "SN2," which test was successful. With progress made, that rocket was "retired," and SpaceX moved on to its next test...

... And today, it's already back to the drawing board.

Actual photo -- not an artist's depiction -- of SpaceX Starship MK1.

SpaceX Starship SN1. R.I.P. Image source: SpaceX.

On Thursday night, SpaceX's SN3 test bed underwent cryogenic testing to ensure it would be able to hold its pressure better than the SN1 did one month ago. SpaceX loaded up SN3 with chilled nitrogen gas at pressures similar to what the spaceship would endure during an actual launch, but within a few seconds, gas could be seen escaping, the structure crumpled in its middle, and toppled over like a reluctant gymnast attempting to touch her toes.

Commenting on the failure, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk mused that there "may have been a test configuration mistake ," meaning, apparently, that rather than a failure to contain pressure, what we saw was tanks being drained of fuel in the wrong order, making the vehicle "top heavy" such that the weight of a full upper tank crushed the empty tank beneath it, causing the whole thing to collapse.  

Whatever the cause, SpaceX isn't slowing down one bit. Construction of its fourth test bed, SN4, is already under way, and SpaceX watcher Ars Technica believes another test could happen as soon as this month.  

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