Tech billionaire Elon Musk has declared a test flight of his SpaceX Starship prototype a “successful ascent”, despite it bursting into a massive fireball on landing.
The Starship exploded during a return-landing attempt, about six-and-a-half minutes after an apparently uneventful test launch from the company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
The rocket destroyed was a 16-storey high prototype for a heavy-lift launch vehicle being developed by Mr Musk’s space company. It will eventually carry humans and 100 tonnes of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars.
The self-guided rocket blew up as it touched down on a landing pad following a controlled descent on Wednesday (Texas time).
The goal was to reach an altitude of 12.5 kilometres – propelled by three of SpaceX’s newly developed Raptor engines for the first time – perform some aerial manoeuvres and then land safely near the launch stand.
Immediately after the fiery landing, Mr Musk tweeted that the rocket’s “fuel header tank pressure was low” during the descent, “causing touchdown velocity to be high”.
Despite the crash, Mr Musk was pleased with the outcome, adding SpaceX had obtained “all the data we needed” from the test.
Later, he followed up with: “Mars, here we come!!”
The first high-altitude test flight of the futuristic Starship was planned for Tuesday, but was aborted at the last second.
An automatic engine abort kicked in with just 1.3 seconds left in the countdown.
SpaceX announced on its web broadcast it was done for the day and there was no word on when it might try again.
The company has conducted five earlier Starship test flights but those simpler models went no higher than 150 metres.
The complete Starship rocket, which will stand 120 metres tall when mated with its super-heavy first-stage booster, is the company’s next-generation fully re-usable launch vehicle – the centre of Mr Musk’s ambitions to make human space travel more affordable and routine.
The stainless-steel version on the launch pad this week was the first to feature a nose cone, body flaps and three Raptor engines.
SpaceX has taken over Boca Chica in south-eastern Texas to build and test its Starships.
The company intends to use Starships – the upper stage atop Super Heavy boosters – to deliver massive satellites into orbit around Earth, and send people and cargo to the moon and Mars.
Mr Musk told The Wall Street Journal he had moved to Texas from California because he wanted to focus more on Tesla’s new electric car plant and his SpaceX venture in the state.
SpaceX has previously launched two successful astronaut missions, last month Elon Musk’s company delivered a crew for a half-year station stay at the International Space Station.
The Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, successfully docked at the ISS in November. Its four astronauts will remain there until they are replaced in April.
NASA has given SpaceX $US135 million ($A180 million) to help develop Starship, alongside competing vehicles from rival ventures Blue Origin, the space company owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, and Leidos-owned Dynetcis.
The three companies are vying for future contracts to build the moon landers under NASA’s Artemis program, which calls for a series of human lunar explorations within the next decade.