A Falcon 9 experimental rocket being tested in Texas by commercial spaceflight company SpaceX blew up shortly after launch when its internal self-destruct system was activated, the company says.
The exact nature of whatever malfunction triggered the self-destruct command is unknown, it says.
"During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission," SpaceX said in a statement.
The company was testing an experimental Falcon F9R, a three-engined successor to its original "Grasshopper" vehicle developed to perform vertical launches and landings.
The test took place Friday at SpaceX's 900-acre testing ground in McGregor in central Texas.
"Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area," the company said. "There were no injuries or near injuries. An FAA representative was present at all times."
Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX and founded by PayPal founder and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, is working to create a reusable rocket design that can launch into orbit and then return to Earth to land.
Capable of quickly being reconfigured for another mission, such a "rapid reusability" rocket would greatly reduce the cost of commercial spaceflight, Musk says.
The company's present two-stage Falcon 9 series has successfully launched four resupply missions to the International Space Station using its own unmanned Dragon capsule and put commercial satellites into orbit.
A manned version of the Dragon is also in development as part of NASA's Commercial Crew Development program to take astronauts to and from the ISS.
The company says it plans to make a first crewed Dragon flight, to be launched by a Falcon 9, in 2015.
The original Grasshopper and the F9R are both single-stage rockets with a landing-leg system meant to test the technology for use on future Falcon 9s to allow recovery of spent rocket stages for reuse.
In announcing the failure of the F9R launch, the first such catastrophic mishap of the test program, SpaceX made the point that detecting anomalies that can disrupt a launch is one of the prime purposes of such research and development testing.
"Today's test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test," the company said.
Musk emphasized that in a Twitter post following the failed launch.
"Rockets are tricky..." he tweeted.
SpaceX is reportedly building a second F9R at its Hawthorne, Calif., facility so testing will likely resume soon.