SpaceX Starship high-altitude test flight ends in another fiery finale
SpaceX has again blasted off from the launchpad with a prototype of its massive Starship vehicle designed for deep space exploration, and again brought it back to Earth in explosive style. Starship Serial Number 9, or SN9, performed a largely successful test flight as it hit the target altitude of 10 km (33,000 ft), though the team's efforts to land the spacecraft back on Earth resulted in another fiery finale.
The Starship is the next-generation spacecraft that SpaceX is building in order to one day take people and cargo to the Moon, Mars, and maybe beyond. The company is hard at work developing, testing and improving on the design, which was most recently demonstrated in December when SN8 was flown to high altitude and crashed spectacularly on return.
Today's test flight of SN9 followed a largely similar path. The spacecraft performed as expected as it blasted off from SpaceX's test facility in Texas, using the three Raptor engines onboard to hit the target altitude before shutting them down and transitioning to a horizontal "belly flop" orientation.
By descending in this way, Starship is able to use its four flaps to guide its path back to Earth and the landing site rather than engines, much like a skydiver might use their arms and legs. SN8 was the first vehicle of this size to demonstrate this maneuver in flight in December, and this portion of the flight again appeared to go to plan today.
As Starship approaches the landing pad, it is designed to fire up two of its engines to flip the vehicle back to an upright position, and then uses a single engine for a landing burn. It is at this point that something appeared to go awry for SN9, with the spacecraft hitting the landing pad at high speed and exploding in a huge fireball just like its predecessor.
While the team would have undoubtedly liked to stick the landing, it's worth remembering that SpaceX spent years testing (and crashing) its Falcon 9 rockets before it began landing them routinely in 2015. Starship is bigger and uses a different method to guide itself back to Earth, so these crash landings might be best viewed as speed bumps rather than roadblocks.
"We'll be back with another Starship in the near future," concludes the commentary on the SpaceX webcast, which can be viewed below.