The latest test flight from SpaceX has ended in flames, after a new prototype craft crash landed having made its highest flight ever.
It was SpaceX’s first major flight test of its Starship spacecraft, a fully-reusable craft designed to be used as a long-duration cargo, and eventually, passenger-carrying vehicle.
The craft – dubbed SN8 – reached a height of 12.5km (7.8miles) before crash landing. Nobody was onboard.
Ahead of the test, SpaceX described the test flight as "an exciting next step in the development of a fully reusable transportation system capable of carrying both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”
Here's everything we know so far.
The private spaceflight company founded by Elon Musk launched its shiny, bullet-shaped, straight-out-of-science fiction Starship several miles into the air from a remote corner of Texas on Wednesday 9 December.
The launch had already been delayed by several factors, but Starship finally lifted off at 4.45pm local time (10.45pm UK time), with just 15 minutes until its designated launch window closed.
The vehicle was due to perform its complicated landing sequence once it had reached its target height, flipping over in mid-air with "precise flap control” and returning to Earth.
A couple of minutes into the test flight, it appeared as if the lower part of the craft had caught on fire, although the flames died down and the test flight was able to continue.
But the six-and-a-half minute test flight ended in an explosive fireball at touchdown.
According to SpaceX, “low pressure in the fuel header tank during the landing burn led to high touchdown velocity resulting in a hard (and exciting!) landing.”
Was anybody on board?
There was nobody on board the craft – which is designed primarily as a cargo vehicle – and SpaceX’s recent manned flights have been much more successful.
In November, the latest SpaceX launch departed the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, carrying four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
The mission was the first operational flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon programme to the International Space Station, following Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s successful ‘demo’ flight in May.
The crew will stay on the ISS for six months, and will return to Earth after being joined by another SpaceX-launched crew for a brief handover.
The next SpaceX-launched crew is scheduled for liftoff on 30 March 2021.
What has Elon Musk said?
Shortly after the test flight's conclusion, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted: “Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point.”
He also appeared to poke fun at the flight's fireball end, also tweeting: “Mars, here we come!”
What does the crash mean?
Despite its fiery end, the test-flight wasn’t a complete failure, and the spacecraft managed to successfully complete a number of other tests before its voyage came to an end.
SpaceX that Starship “successfully ascended, transitioned propellant, and performed its landing flip maneuver with precise flap control to reach its landing point.”
The test flight’s dramatic end wasn't entirely unexpected either, with SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk predicting only a one in three chance of the launch and landing succeeding ahead of the test.
SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility in Texas will once again play host to a similar test flight in the near future; the next Starship prototype SN9 is already built.
"As we venture into new territory, we continue to appreciate all of the support and encouragement we have received," SpaceX said in a statement prior to the test,” said SpaceX.
How can I watch the launch?
The launch (and its explosive end) are available to watch for free through SpaceX’s YouTube channel
A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, the Scotsman