After months of waiting, SpaceX made its second attempt at an orbital flight this past Saturday (November 18th). During their previous attempt, which occurred back in April, a fully-stacked Starship (SN24) and Super Heavy (BN7) prototypes managed to make it off the landing pad and reach an altitude of about 40 km (25 miles) above sea level. Unfortunately, the SN24 failed to separate from the BN7 booster a few minutes into the flight, causing the vehicle to fall into an uncontrolled tumble and forcing the ground teams to detonate the onboard charges.
Things went better this time as the SN25 and BN9 prototypes took off at about 7:00 AM local time (8:00 AM EDT; 05:00 AM PDT) from the Starbase launch complex. The SN25 successfully separated from its booster two minutes and fifty seconds later – at an altitude of 70 km (43 mi) – and reached an altitude of about 148 kilometers (92 miles), just shy of SpaceX’s goal of 150 km (~93 mi). However, the booster stage was lost about 30 seconds after separation, exploding over the Gulf of Mexico. The SN25 also exploded about eight minutes into the flight, reportedly because its flight termination system was activated.
It was an exciting time when, two weeks ago, SpaceX got the clearance it needed to conduct its first orbital flight test with the Starshipand Super Heavy launch system. After years of waiting, SN flight tests, static fire tests, and stacking and unstacking, the long-awaited test of the SN24 Starship and BN7 Booster prototype was on! For this flight, SpaceX hoped to achieve an altitude of at least 150 km (90 mi) above sea level, crossing the 100 km (62 mi) threshold that officially marks the boundary of “space” (aka. the Karman Line) and making a partial transit around the world before splashing down off the coast of Hawaii.
Unfortunately, things began to go awry a few minutes into the flight as the Starship prototype failed to separate from the booster, sending the rocket into a spin that ended in an explosion. While Musk and SpaceX issued statements that the test was largely successful and lots of valuable data was obtained, residents and environmental researchers claim the explosion caused damage to houses in the area and the local environment. In response, the FAA has launched a “mishap investigation,” temporarily grounding the Starship until the explosion’s impact can be assessed.
It’s been a long road, but it looks as though SpaceX may finally be ready for an orbital flight test with the Starship and Super Heavy. After months of waiting, static fire tests, stacking, and restacking, Elon Musk announced on March 16th that SpaceX could be ready to go with the SN24 and BN7 prototypes in “a few weeks,” pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Musk announced via Twitter, saying, “launch timing depends on FAA license approval. Assuming that takes a few weeks, first launch attempt will be near end of third week of April, aka…”
Another day, another static fire test, another milestone on the road to space! For months, crews at the SpaceX Starbase near Boca Chica, Texas, have been conducting static fire tests of the B7 Super Heavy booster prototype. In previous tests, the ground crews test-fired 7 to 14 of the B7s Raptor 2 engines for periods lasting 7 to 13 seconds. Today, the crews prepped the BN7 Booster for the first static fire test, where all thirty-three engines would fire simultaneously. While two of its Raptors did not fire, the test was a success and set a new record for the amount of thrust produced in a single booster fire.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of activity at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Launch Complex! In addition to the SN 20 prototype completing a static fire test with three of the new Raptor Vacuum 6 engines this month, the facility’s “Mechazilla” Launch Tower recently received a giant pair of steel arms. Once integrated with the ~135m (~450 ft) tower, these arms will be responsible for “catching” spent Starships and Super Heavy boosters as they return to Earth.
The Tower will also prepare missions by stacking first stage boosters with Starships and refueling these elements for the next launch. In this respect, the Launch Tower is a crucial piece of the Orbital Launch Site (OLS) architecture that Elon Musk has planned for Boca Chica. Once the Starship completes its Orbital Flight Test (which could happen soon!), Boca Chica will become a spaceflight hub where launches and retrievals are conducted regularly.
Once again, things are gearing up at SpaceX’s South Texas Launch Facility, located just outside the village of Boca Chica, Texas. In recent weeks, the aerospace community has been abuzz about the rollout and Static Fire test of the Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) prototype. This was the first time a booster was tested, which will be responsible for launching the Starship to space in the near future. Since then, things have only ramped up some more.
First, there was the announcement on Aug. 2nd that the fourth Super Heavy prototype (the BN4) received a full complement of 29 Raptor engines and grid fins. This was followed on Aug. 3rd with news that BN4 was being moved to the launch pad and that the SN20 Starship prototype received a full six Raptor engines. On Aug. 6th, the denouement came with the stacking of both prototypes together, which resulted in the tallest rocket in the history of spaceflight!
As usual, the SpaceX South Texas Launch Facility, located near the village of Boca Chica, is the focal point of a lot of attention. Almost two months ago, crews at the facility began working on the first true Super Heavy prototype, the launch stage of SpaceX’s Starship. After six weeks of assembly, SpaceX rolled the Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) out of the “High Bay” (where it was assembled) and installed it onto the launch pad.
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.
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).
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.