SpaceX’s SN15 Starship Prototype Nails It!

On the afternoon of May 5th, 2021, at 05:24 PM local time, SpaceX made its fifth attempt at a high-altitude test flight and soft landing with a Starship prototype. Given the outcomes of the previous test, this event had many people on the edge of their seats. In all four attempts, the prototypes managed to reach their maximum altitude and pull off the bellyflop maneuver, but then exploded during landing (or shortly thereafter).

Would the fifteenth iteration of the Starship prototype (SN15) succeed where the others had failed? As of 05:30 P.M. local time (06:30 P.M. EDT; 03:30 P.M. PDT), the answer to that question is, “WITH GUSTO!” On their fifth attempt, the SN15 not only managed to reach its target altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi) and pull off the belly-flop and controlled descent, it also stuck the landing and suffered no mishaps afterward.

In other words, COMPLETE SUCCESS!

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Chinese Company Claims to be Working on a Starship-Like Rocket

Last weekend (April 24th), China celebrated its sixth “National Space Day” (aka. Aerospace Industry Achievement Exhibition) in Nanjing, an event that highlights advances China has made in space. Similar to Space Day that is held each year on the first Thursday in May (this year, it will be held on May 7th), the goal is to foster interest in space exploration and the STEMS so as to inspire the next generation of astronauts and aerospace engineers.

This year, the festivities focused on the Chang’e-5 mission (which showcased some of the lunar samples it brought back), and the name of China’s first Mars rover (Zhurong) – which will be landing on the Red Planet later this month. But another interesting snippet was a video presented by one of China’s main rocket manufacturers that showed demonstrated that they are working on a rocket similar to the Starship.

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What if Starship Didn’t Do a Landing Burn at All?

Thanks to Musk’s preference for sharing his ideas directly with the public, SpaceX is inundated with all kinds of proposals from citizen scientists and space-exploration enthusiasts – some of which are practical and some outlandish. This latest proposal definitely straddles these two categories! In an animation shared via Twitter, 3D digital artist Nick Henning offered an alternative vision for a SpaceX tower that could “catch” the Super Heavy.

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NASA Picks SpaceX to Land Astronauts on the Moon!

As part of the Artemis program, NASA is gearing up to send the “first woman and next man” to the Moon by 2024. Central to this is the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, and the Orion spacecraft. But after these elements transport astronauts to Lunar orbit, they will need a lander to take them to and from the surface.

For this reason, NASA contracted a number of commercial partners to develop a Human Landing System (HLS). After much consideration, NASA announced on Friday, April 16th, that they had selected SpaceX to continue developing their concept for a lunar lander. When American astronauts return to the Moon for the first time in fifty-two years, it will be a modified version of the Starship that will bring them there.

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SpaceX has Given up Trying to Catch Rocket Fairings. Fishing Them out of the Ocean is Fine

If there is one driving force in the commercial space industry it is economics.  The whole concept of reusable booster rocket emphasizes the importance of getting launch costs down.  SpaceX, the company leading the charge in trying to bring launch costs down, doesn’t just recover booster rockets however.  It also recovers the rocket fairings that hold the payload during launch.  SpaceX’s original plan was to capture the fairings as they fell back to Earth using specially equipped ships with nets to catch them before they landed in the ocean.  Now, however, the company has transitioned to simply fishing fairings out of the ocean after they splash down, and that seems to be working just fine.

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Latest Starship Prototype SN11 Explodes in mid-air, Raining Debris on the Launch Site

Space exploration sure is hard, huh? Luckily, it’s an iterative process, where engineers test and test and test again to work out all the bugs in advance. At least, that’s what we remind ourselves when the prototype goes “kaboom!” Earlier today, the SN11 joins its predecessors by being the fourth Starship prototype to conduct a successful flight test and then explode while attempting to make a landing (or shortly thereafter).

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Fantastic Analysis of SN-10 Landing and Explosion by Scott Manley

Update: Yesterday (March 9th), Elon Musk shared the reason for the explosion via Twitter. According to Musk, the problem originated with the one Raptor engine used to slow the SN10 down before landing.

“SN10 engine was low on thrust due (probably) to partial helium ingestion from fuel header tank,” he tweeted. “Impact of 10m/s crushed legs & part of skirt. Multiple fixes in work for SN11.

On March 3rd, 2021, SpaceX conducted a third high-altitude flight test with one of their Starship prototypes (SN10). This time around, the prototype managed to achieve an apogee of 10 km (6.2 mi), a controlled descent relying on nothing but its aerodynamic surfaces (the “belly-flop”), and even managed to land successfully. However, a few minutes after it stuck the landing, the SN10 exploded on the landing pad.

Whereas the SN8 and SN9 explosions were attributed to problems that took place during engine reignition, the cause of the SN10 explosion was not as clear. Thankfully, astrophysicist and Youtube personality Scott Manley (Twitter handle @DJSnM) has offered his take on what might have caused it. Using SpaceX’s footage of the SN10 flight test, he suggests that a slightly-harder-than-intended landing and a fuel tank rupture were responsible.

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SpaceX’s Starship Prototype Flies High AND Sticks the Landing!

They say, “third time’s the charm.” This was largely the case today as SpaceX made their third attempt at a high altitude flight test at their launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Like the previous two attempts, this flight saw a Starship prototype (SN10) with three Raptor engines fly to an altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi), conduct a “belly-flop” descent maneuver, and then return to the launch facility.

As with the previous high-altitude tests, the SN10 successfully launched, reached its apogee, and validated the control fins and aerodynamic surfaces. But unlike the previous tests, the SN10 was able to slow down enough and keep itself upright so it could make a soft landing. While the prototype exploded a few minutes after landing (apparently from a methane leak) the flight was a complete success!

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NASA has Decided to Start Building the Lunar Gateway Using the Falcon Heavy

In October of 2024, NASA will send “the first woman and the next man” to the Moon as part of the Artemis Program. This will be the first crewed mission to the lunar surface, and the first mission beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), since the closing of the Apollo Era in 1972. Beyond that, NASA plans to establish infrastructure on and around the Moon that will allow for “sustained lunar exploration and development.”

A key aspect of this is the Lunar Gateway, an orbiting habitat that will allow astronauts to make regular trips to and from the lunar surface. After much consideration, NASA recently announced that they have selected SpaceX to launch the foundational elements of the Gateway – the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) – by May of 2024 (at the earliest).

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SN9 Tests Ends With a Boom. You’re Up SN10

Another day, another round of testing (and yes, another explosion). Today, on Tuesday, Feb. 2nd, 2021, flight teams at SpaceX’s launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas, conducted a high-altitude test flight with a Starship prototype. Similar to the previous test in December, the SN9 was powered by three Raptor engines, flew to an altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi), then attempted another “belly flop” to test out its fins and aerodynamic surfaces.

As always, the event was broadcast via live stream by SpaceX, NASASpaceFlight, LabPadre, and several other observers. Like the SN8 test flight, SpaceX’s coverage provided multiple vantage points (landing pad, engine compartment, fuselage, aerial drone, etc.) The flight commenced at 2:25:15 P.M. CST (04:25:15 EST; 12:25:15 PST) when the Starship ignited its three engines and began its ascent.

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