Space Exploration Technologies Corp. successfully landed a prototype of its enormous new Starship spacecraft in a high-altitude test flight conducted March 3, but the rocket exploded shortly after touching down.

The company had previously attempted two similar tests, launching the 160-foot spacecraft into Earth’s upper atmosphere before landing it back on a launch pad at a testing site in Boca Chica, Texas. In both tests, the Starship exploded while landing.

This time, the spacecraft returned to the test site in one piece.

“Third time’s the charm as the saying goes,” SpaceX Principal Integration Engineer John Insprucker said during a live webcast of the flight.

“We’ve had a successful soft touchdown on the landing pad capping a beautiful test flight,” Insprucker said. “The key point of today’s test flight was to gather data on controlling the vehicle while reentering, and we were successful in doing so.”

Approximately eight minutes later, the vehicle abruptly shot into the air and exploded.
In a statement following the flight, SpaceX referred to the explosion as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” but did not offer an explanation of what caused it to occur.

The company said the test flight was “successful” overall and said its purpose was to improve “understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration interplanetary flights.”

Successful development of the Starship is crucial to SpaceX’s long-term plans, which include expeditions to the moon and to Mars.

“One day, the true measure of success will be that Starship flights are commonplace,” Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a tweet following the test.

Musk said last year that the company aims to send an unmanned Starship spacecraft to Mars in 2022, with a possible crewed mission taking place as soon as 2024.

Early in the morning on March 4, SpaceX launched a separate mission, successfully deploying 60 satellites in service of the company’s Starlink global broadband program. Since 2019, the company has launched more than 1,100 satellites into orbit to support development of a low-latency broadband network now being tested in parts of North America and Europe.

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