SpaceX has once again flown its starship spacecraft, a development space launch vehicle still under construction in South Florida. The test was a flight of the SN9, the ninth in its current series of prototype rockets. The test involved flying the SN9 to an altitude of about 10 km (just 6 miles or about 33,000 feet). After reaching that apogee, the SN9 spacecraft changed its approach to re-entry (simulated, as it did not actually leave Earth’s atmosphere) and then took off for a controlled landing.
This is the second test along these lines, using the SN8 prototype for the first time in December, ahead of the current series. Today’s testing saw the SN9 reach its target height, and required a successful ‘belly flop’ maneuver as well as the necessary propellant hands-off. It was also a successful test of the flap on the starship, which controls its angle as it moves through the air, and changes its angle through on-board motors to do so. The landing part did not go smoothly – the spacecraft attempted to re-orientate itself to go vertical for landing, but it did not go up-and-down very directly, and there was also a lot of speed in touchdowns, so when it hit the ground So it exploded gracefully.
SpaceX had a similar test for the first time, with things running smoothly until the landing part of the mission. During the flight of the SN8, the starship prototype was better oriented for landing before it was very difficult to touch, but it is difficult to say whether it was more or less successful without access to data and test parameters.
Starship is designed to perform this critical maneuver as part of its approach to reusability – the spacecraft is intended to be fully reusable, and will complete it with a powered-off landing Clearly, the explosion is not the component. As noted by the company, however, the remainder of this test looks very much what they wanted.
Such initial testing is not expected to go well for planning, and the point is primarily to collect data that will help improve further efforts and development of spacecraft. Of course, you would expect to get exactly the same things on your first attempts, but it doesn’t really work that way in rocketry. It is unusual how public SpaceX is with its development program at this stage of testing.
The company will soon return to this with another try. It has already installed its SN10 prototype at its launch site on its Texas site, which is the other spaceship you see in the early part of the animation above.