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.
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.
To commemorate their greatest accomplishment to date with the Starship, SpaceX has released a recap video of the SN8 high-altitude flight. This was the 12.5 km hop test that took place on December 9th, 2020, which saw the SN8 prototype ascend to an altitude of 12.5 km (7.8 mi), conduct a “belly-flop” maneuver, and return to the launch pad. While it didn’t quite stick the landing, the test was a major milestone in the development of the Starship.
For years, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has talked about what he will do once his company’s super heavy-lift launch system is finally ready to go! While tidbits of information were shared between 2011 and 2015, it was not until September of 2017 that Musk began to share detailed plans for this system. By 2018, Musk announced that work on the Starship and Super-Heavy (formerly known as the BFR) was underway.
In the past year, progress on the Starship has advanced by leaps and bounds (despite a few explosions). This reached a high point on Dec. 9th, 2020, when the SN8 prototype conducted a hop test where it reached an altitude of 12.5 km (7.8 mi) and did a “belly-flop” on the way down. According to recent indications, the SN9 may be making a hop test by the end of this week!
Update:According to FAA flight restrictions that were redacted yesterday (Dec. 3rd), the date for the hop test has since been moved to Monday, Dec. 7th, at the earliest. The altitude of the test has also been dropped from 15 km to 12.5 km (41,000 ft).
SpaceX has really hit its stride lately! Throughout the Summer of 2020 and well into the Fall, the company has experienced a string of successes with the construction and testing of its Starship prototypes. This has included multiple cryogenic load tests, static fire tests, test tank pressure tests, and even two 150 m (~500 ft) hop tests. And now, it looks like SpaceX could be making its first high-altitude flight test as early as tomorrow!
This test will see the first Starship prototype with three Raptor engines (SN8) fly to an altitude of 15 km (9.3 mi) before returning home safely. The engineering teams will be using this test to validate the Starship maneuvering fins as well, conducting a “belly-flop” maneuver that will see how the spacecraft’s aerodynamic surfaces allow it to make controlled landings on bodies that have an atmosphere.
SpaceX has been very busy lately with the development of its Starship prototypes. Based on recent activity at its Boca Chica facility, and recent images provided by Musk himself, it looks like they are about ready to make their biggest leap yet. Yesterday, on Oct. 14th, Musk announced that the eighth prototype of the Starship (SN8) has received the three Raptor engines it will use to make its planned 15.25 km (50,000 ft).
They say that failure can be the greatest teacher of all, and it’s easy to see why. Those who learn from their mistakes become informed as to what can go wrong, and will develop the necessary strategies to avoid making the same mistake in the future. This philosophy is also at the core of SpaceX rapid-prototyping process, where full-scale models of the Starship and its components are tested to the point of failure.
At Boca Chica, SpaceX ground crews continue to follow this process in order to get the Starship ready for orbital testing. The latest piece of hardware that was tested to failure was the SN7.1 Test Tank, which was pressurized until it exploded. This test took place a week ago (on the evening of September 23rd) shortly after the SN5 and SN6 prototypes both completed a 150 m (~500 ft) hop test.
SpaceX is getting closer to the day when it will be able to make good on its promise of conducting regular missions to orbit, the Moon, and to Mars. At the heart of all this is the progress they are making with their Starship and Super Heavy launch system. In recent weeks, Musk’s commercial space company conducted two successful 150 m (500 ft) hop tests with the SN5 and SN6 prototypes at the Boca Chica launch facility in southern Texas.
Based on the latest announcements to come out of SpaceX, it appears that this recent string of successes has emboldened Musk and his company. Previously, Musk indicated that he was planning on making several more small hop tests and that the SN8 would attempt a 20 km (12 mi) flight sometime next year. More recent indications, however, suggest that Musk wants to conduct this high-altitude test before the end of October.