SpaceX’s Starship explosion explained by Elon Musk

The burning wreckage of Starship SN4, May 29th. (SPadre)

Shortly after a briefing following SpaceX’s flawless astronaut launch debut, CEO Elon Musk casually revealed the best explanation yet for why a Starship prototype violently exploded during testing on May 29th.

On that fated Saturday, SpaceX successfully completed the fifth static fire of a Raptor engine installed on a full-scale Starship prototype, preceded by about an hour and a half of vehicle checks and propellant loading. Unfortunately, around a minute after Raptor shut down, what was quickly identified as liquid methane began spurting out of a specific section at the base of Starship, rapidly creating a massive cloud as the cryogenic propellant boiled and turned into gas. The specific source is unclear but moments later, something under Starship SN4 provided the shock or spark needed to ignite the expanding fire hazard, producing a spectacularly large and violent explosion.

Unsurprisingly, the accidental fuel-air explosion that was created obliterated Starship SN4 in the blink of an eye, shredding its lower (liquid oxygen) tank into steel confetti and immediately breaching the upper (liquid methane) tank, which fell to the ground and subsequently exploded again. The launch mount Starship was staged on was also damaged beyond repair and has been fully dismantled and scrapped in the two days since the anomaly. Thankfully, however, SpaceX already has replacement mounts and ships well on their way to carrying Starship SN4’s torch forward and Elon Musk already seems to understand what caused the prototype’s demise.

Shortly after a post-launch briefing celebrating and discussing SpaceX’s inaugural astronaut launch on May 30th, Reuters reporter Joey Roulette was able to ask Musk about Starship SN4’s spectacular demise the day prior. The SpaceX CEO was quoted saying that “what we thought was going to be a minor test of a quick disconnect ended up being a big problem”, confirming suspicions based on careful analysis of public views of the explosion that it was caused by issues with Starship’s ground support equipment (GSE).

Starhopper’s quick-disconnect umbilical panel is pictured here in May 2019. Starship SN4 used a similar mechanism, although the plumbing is now located inside the vehicle’s circumference. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

In Musk’s statement, “quick disconnect” (QD) refers to an umbilical port that connects a launch vehicle to GSE, enabling the loading and offloading of propellant and fluids, clamping down the rocket, and providing a wired telemetry and communications link for ground controllers. QDs must perform all those tasks while also being able to rapidly release and disconnect, allowing the rocket to lift off while still protecting its sensitive ports for ease of reuse.

In theory, Starship’s quick-disconnect umbilical panel is even more complex, as it will have to simultaneously enable the ship to be fueled and controlled while sitting on top of a Super Heavy booster and permit in-orbit docking and refueling. Given that Starships are currently being tested independently on spartan launch mounts, it’s unclear if the current generation of prototypes has been outfitted with advanced QD panels. More likely, Musk was referring to a test of a less advanced QD panel similar to the rough version used on Starhopper last year, and SpaceX simply wanted to test its ability to disconnect and reconnect to Starship on command.

SpaceX’s existing Starship launch mount was heavily damaged by SN4’s explosion and has since been fully dismantled. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starship SN4’s remains have already been cleared from the pad. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

If that’s the case, the likeliest explanation for SN4’s explosion is that that quick disconnect was unable to fully reconnect after the test, resulting in a leak from the liquid methane port when SpaceX began to detank the rocket. Instead of the highly-pressurized fluid flowing smoothly back to ground storage tanks, the liquid methane sprayed wildly, akin to the effect one might observe when attempting to block off an active water source with an open palm.

Work on a second launch mount was already ongoing when Starship SN4 exploded on May 29th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starship SN5 and SN6 are simultaneously being assembled in SpaceX’s new vertical assembly building (VAB). (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Compared to the many possible ways a fueled Starship could fail, a propellant leak started by a faulty umbilical panel is about as convenient as they come. Starship SN4 may have been violently destroyed as a result, turning a relatively small error into exceptionally painful lesson but SpaceX has already had some success building full-scale prototypes at an almost unbelievably low cost – likely less than $10M apiece. Starship SN5 appears to be just shy of ready to take SN4’s place on the launch mount, although SpaceX will have to build an entirely new launch mount before it can resume testing.

At the same time, Starship SN5’s successor – SN6 – is just one stacking event away from reaching a level of completion similar to SN4 and SN5. All told, Starship SN4’s demise is just another part of the process of developing a new kind of rocket by building and testing hardware – failure can be a valuable tool when managed properly. Based on past observations, SpaceX could be ready to continue testing (and hopefully flying) Starship prototypes before the end of the month.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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