Dramatic videos show a fireball briefly engulfing SpaceX's Mars rocket prototype after an important test

spacex starhopper fireball flames explosion static fire test july 16 2019 labpadre maria pointer youtube 001

LabPadre/YouTube; Maria Pointer/@SpaceXBocaChica

A fireball engulfs SpaceX's Starhopper rocket ship during a static-fire test on July 16, 2019.

  • SpaceX test-fired a small rocket ship in Texas on Tuesday night. The test was to set the stage for a bigger "hop and hover" launch.
  • However, a towering fireball erupted around the vehicle, called Starhopper, a few minutes after the test firing ended. Some locals recorded video of the incident during a live broadcast.
  • SpaceX has postponed Starhopper's big launch in the fireball's wake.
  • Starhopper is an early prototype of much bigger vehicle called Starship, which SpaceX founder Elon Musk hopes to use for sending people to Mars.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

SpaceX filled the south Texas air with the roar of a Raptor engine last night. However, Elon Musk's rocket company also set off a fireball that briefly engulfed the rocket ship to which the engine was attached.

The rocket, called Starhopper, is a squat, six-story prototype of a larger interplanetary launch system known as Starship that's being designed to take people to and from Mars. That system (and its prototypes) will use a new rocket engine called Raptor.

The Tuesday evening test-firing of the engine was meant to set the stage for Starhopper's first big and untethered launch, which was scheduled for today.

The test, which started at 11:24 p.m. ET (10:24 p.m. CT) and lasted about five seconds, initially threw up a cloud of flames, dust, and fumes.

But a few minutes later, a giant fireball erupted and briefly engulfed the vehicle.

A neighbor of SpaceX's rudimentary launch site, which is located at the southern tip of Texas, recorded the incident during a live video feed (below).

If you turn on the sound, you can hear one of the announcers say, "Oh my god it caught fire."

The video shows a fire suppression system - essentially a robotic firehose - starting to douse Starhopper and its launch pad with a stream of water. The system was ostensibly used to put out some flames coming from the rocket's side.

But when the water touched the vehicle, a fireball erupted, shooting flames more than 100 feet into the air. The vehicle is fueled by liquid methane, a main ingredient in natural gas, and turns into a volatile and highly flammable gas when it's exposed to air.

Tim Dodd, who runs the Everyday Astronaut channel on YouTube, was also recording the event on-site. His video, shown below, captures both the test and fireball in ultra-high-resolution, slow-motion video.



What this means for Starhopper's first big launch

In the wake of the fireball, SpaceX has postponed the big "hop and hover" launch of the Starhopper.

That launch was supposed to send the rocket about 65 feet (20 meters) into the air, where it would hover, move sideways, and then land back on its launchpad, as Musk tweeted last week. 

Starhopper is made of a rugged steel that's similar to the kind used in pots and pans, but it's unclear if the rocket was significantly damaged by the incident, or how much. SpaceX has thus far declined to provide details about the incident.

However, people who visited the company's launch site this morning posted detailed pictures of the vehicle, and the images did not appear to show any major structural damage.

Read more: Elon Musk's SpaceX is developing giant Mars rockets in a sleepy town in southern Texas. Here's what it's like to visit.

Nonetheless, SpaceX appears unlikely to reschedule the big launch for any time this week: The company deleted road-closures notices for the streets around SpaceX's site. (Every time SpaceX wants to launch from the area, it must ask a local judge in advance to close Highway 4 - the only road into and out of the site - for safety.)

starhopper starship prototype spacex south texas sotx launch site boca chica beach dave mosher business insider DCM_2100

Dave Mosher/Business Insider

SpaceX's earliest Mars rocket ship prototype, called Starhopper, sits on a launchpad after its first launch in April 2019.

This week's Starhopper "hop" would not have been its first: SpaceX fired up Starhopper in April, but those tests tethered the rocket ship to the pad via bike-chain-like metal ropes on its legs.

The company may eventually launch Starhopper to a height of about 3.1 miles (5 kilometers).

A spokesperson for SpaceX previously told Business Insider that the planned Starhopper launch is "one in a series of tests designed to push the limits of the vehicle as quickly as possible to learn all we can, as fast as we safely can."

Prophetically, they added: "As with all development programs, the schedule can be quite dynamic and subject to change."

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