Starship booster test ends in fiery anomaly

WASHINGTON — A test of the booster for SpaceX’s first orbital spaceship vehicle ended on July 11 with flames unexpectedly erupting from the vehicle’s base, starting a fire on the trail.

Video of test activity at SpaceX’s Starbase complex in Boca Chica, Texas, showed a burst of flames at the base of the Super Heavy booster dubbed Booster 7 at around 5:20 p.m. Eastern. At least one fire was later observed near the trail, believed to have been caused by the incident, sending a plume of black smoke into the sky.

It is not yet clear what caused the anomaly. SpaceX had not warned that it would attempt a Booster 7 static fire test. Such a test, involving some or all of the 33 Raptor engines in the booster, is an important milestone ahead of the vehicle’s first orbital launch attempt.

In a series of tweets, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said the company is planning a “spin-start test” of the engines, a test in which the engines are not ignited. “Raptor has a complex running order”, He wrote. “In the future, we will not do a spin-start test with all 33 engines at the same time.”

Although Musk admitted the incident was “not good”, it was not clear what damage it caused to the booster itself. “Vehicle base seems ok with flashlight,” he said in a late night tweet. “I’ll know more tomorrow.”

SpaceX has been testing both Booster 7 and an upper spaceship spacecraft, dubbed Ship 24, on Starbase ahead of a vehicle’s first orbital launch. SpaceX has not set a formal launch date for that maiden flight, nor is it clear how this incident will affect those plans.

On that orbital launch, the Super Heavy booster will either crash into the Gulf of Mexico or attempt to land back at Starbase, according to a recent filing from the Federal Communications Commission. The spacecraft will briefly enter orbit at an altitude of about 250 kilometers before reentering and making a “powered, directional landing” in the Pacific Ocean just north of Hawaii. That FCC application for an experimental license covers a six-month period beginning August 1.

SpaceX still needs a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration to perform the launch. While the FAA completed an environmental assessment on June 13 that would allow such launches to continue, that assessment requires SpaceX to implement dozens of measures to mitigate environmental impacts.

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