HOUSTON, TEXAS (BLOOMBERG) - Space Exploration Technologies Corp's newest and biggest rocket successfully landed in its third test flight, then exploded a short time later and was consumed by fire.
The Starship SN-10 prototype lifted off from SpaceX's seaside launch pad at about 5.15pm in Boca Chica, Texas on Wednesday (March 3), based on a live video stream on SpaceX's website.
The rocket then flew to an altitude of about 10km before turning its engines back on and touching down on the landing pad.
The rocket was then lifted into the air amid orange flames, possibly after a fire ignited fuel.
Despite the mishap, the successful landing - the craft's first - signals progress for the massive vehicle.
An earlier Starship rocket slammed to the ground on Dec 9, igniting a fireball, followed by a similar outcome with a second prototype last month. No one was injured in the mishaps.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk plans to use the Starship to shuttle as many as 12 people around the moon in two years, land Nasa astronauts on the lunar surface and eventually settle explorers on Mars. The company still has work to prepare the Starship for its first orbital flight, which could occur later this year.
"I'm highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023, and that it will be safe enough for human transport by 2023," Mr Musk said Tuesday in a video released by Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, who has invited eight people to apply to join his "fun trip" around the moon. "It's looking very, very promising."
SpaceX conceived the stainless steel Starship as a versatile, fully reusable craft that can carry 100 metric tons for deep-space missions to the moon and Mars.
It's also designed to serve as a hypersonic, point-to-point vehicle to reduce travel times across Earth.
Excluding a heavy booster that creates a two-stage system, Starship is 49m high with a 9m diameter, and able to carry as many as 100 passengers.
Mr Musk said in October that he's 80 per cent to 90 per cent confident that Starship will be ready for an orbital flight this year.
SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, plans to fly multiple Starship prototypes from its Texas launch site near the US-Mexico border.