SpaceX is finally close to performing a high-altitude test flight for a prototype of its Starship vehicle, after yesterday's attempt was scrubbed by an auto-abort from its Raptor engines. The company is ready to try again today, and came within a couple of minutes of launching earlier before pausing the countdown and restarting.
SpaceX is one step closer to replacing its Falcon line of active duty spacecraft: It's Starship prototype 'SN8' achieved a major milestone in the ongoing spacecraft's development program, flying to a height of around 40,000 feet at SpaceX's development facility in southern Texas. One of the Starship's three Raptor engines cut off around 2 minutes into flight, but the prototype rocket continued its ascent. Then at around three minutes, another extinguished, leaving just one lit and firing. The rocket continued to climb, oriented upward, but it was hard to tell from the feed exactly how high it reached. The third flared out at around 4:30, and the Starship oriented into a horizontal position, angling back towards Earth but effectively flat on its belly, gliding. SpaceX’s Starship looks like it was ripped straight from the pages of a pulp science fiction novel. Its gleaming, bullet-shaped silver hull is a patchwork of stainless steel plates.
Two triangular fins protrude from its lower half, with two smaller fins near its tip. Starship is huge—15 stories from engine to nose cone—but it is only the upper stage of a still larger rocket called the Super Heavy. This booster is a scaled-up version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and will come equipped with three times as many engines. When SpaceX mates a Falcon Super Heavy booster and Starship, the entire ensemble will stand nearly 400 feet tall. It will be just a few feet taller than NASA’s Saturn V rocket that carried humans to the moon, which remains the largest and most powerful rocket that has ever flown to space.
This unusual reentry is all about aerodynamics. By executing a belly flop, Starship can more accurately control its landing using its fins. But this type of landing maneuver is also unprecedented, which means that it carries a lot of risk until SpaceX gets a better idea of how Starship reacts while it’s returning to earth.
Now the SpaceX live stream says it's targeting a launch time of 5:40 PM ET, and if everything goes well then we will see Starship SN8 fly to an altitude of 12.5 km (41,000 feet) and attempt a record-setting "landing flip maneuver" on its way back to the base in Boca Chica, TX. For a more detailed way to follow the action, the enthusiasts at NASA Spaceflight also have a live feed that broadcasts from multiple angles with live commentary.
The Starship's engines re-ignited as the rocket approached the ground, flipping the rocket into a vertical orientation once again and slowing its descent. It landed a bit harder than expected, however, resulting in an explosion that engulfed the rocket. That's still a successful test, and went better than SpaceX or most observers likely expected it would.
The good news, is that the team got “all the data we needed” and it appears everything is in order for future
tests. Those already carry improvements compared to SN8 which flew today, and the team will be quick to implement additional tweaks based on this flight and the data they obtained during the test.