Liftoff! SpaceX successfully launched its Starship rocket to a record height of 12.5 kilometers altitude, or around 41,000 feet.
The test, which took place at the firm's Cameron County launch pad in Texas on Wednesday, saw the triple-engine "SN8" prototype ascend as expected and successfully perform a landing flip maneuver. The aerial acrobatics were designed to return Starship safely to Earth, but the ship didn't survive the landing maneuver.
As the ship exploded in a ball of fire, SpaceX blamed the landing failure on "low pressure in the fuel header tank." For his part, Elon Musk was thrilled.
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The flight, which lasted six minutes and 42 seconds, was shared on SpaceX's livestream via YouTube and on the company's Twitter. The video has been viewed more than five million times at the time of writing.
After what looks like a smooth takeoff and journey into the sky, the Starship prototype starts to change course around 4 and a half minutes in to its flight. As it starts to journey downward, everything seems to be going smoothly. Until it is not.
But over on Twitter, Musk was elated.
"Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD [rapid unscheduled disassembly], but we got all the data we needed!" Musk wrote on his Twitter page. "Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!"
"Even reaching apogee would’ve been great, so controlling all way to putting the crater in the right spot was epic!!" Musk later wrote.
SN8's flight is a major step forward in what is perhaps SpaceX's most ambitious project. The Starship is a fully-reusable stainless steep ship designed to send over 150 tons or 100 people into space at a time. Its Raptor engines are fueled by liquid oxygen and methane, which means humans could ostensibly use it to fly to Mars, refuel using the planet's resources, and either fly home or venture out further.
Musk plans to use Starship for SpaceX's biggest missions. A crewed mission to Mars could come as early as the mid-2020s, he says. Musk predicts a million-strong city on Mars could be established by 2050.
Musk has even discussed transforming humanity into a multi-planetary species, and also raised the prospect of terraforming Mars to make its atmosphere more Earth-like.
The previous altitude record for a Starship prototype was 150 meters or around 500 feet, set by the SN5 prototype in August 2020. This was followed by SN6's flight to the same altitude one month later. Both flights used a single engine and lacked the new features seen on SN8, like a nosecone and flaps.
The SN8 was originally expected to fly further — to 15 kilometers, or around 50,000 feet. But on December 4, it emerged SpaceX had decided to lower its ambitions and try fly to a height of 12.5 kilometers.
After SN8 reached its target height, it demonstrated its belly-flop landing maneuver. This is part of how the ship is expected to slow down when it arrives at Mars, as it will enter the atmosphere at speeds of 16,777 miles per hour. Musk described its landing technique in September 2018 as more like a skydiver than an aircraft.
The SN8 prototype follows in the footsteps of other Musk projects by carrying a few quirky features.
Musk shared an image after the flight showing the number 42 emblazoned on one of the Raptor engines. His accompanying caption — "Life, the Universe and Everything" — is a reference to Douglas Adams' sci-fi novel Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
A reference to the novel also appeared in the red Tesla Roadster launched on the Falcon Heavy's first flight in 2018.
The Inverse analysis — Was SpaceX's flight a success? Based on the company's own expectations, the answer is yes.
The Starship successfully reached its target altitude, and it demonstrated its landing moves. But the maneuver didn't enable it to survive the landing, though.
This may seem like a setback, but it is in-line with what Musk himself had predicted. Ahead of the launch, he said SpaceX calculated the ship had a one in three chance of landing successfully. The rest of the flight was a success, which means SpaceX met its own expectations. And SpaceX now has a trove of data it can use to perfect an otherwise-successful flight.
The explosion is a dramatic end to SN8's flight, but in the context of the broader Starship project, reaching over 40,000 feet is an exciting step forward for a ship that could transform spaceflight.
THE STARSHIP’S JOURNEY, SUMMARIZED:
- November 2018 — BFR, first announced in September 2017, gets renamed to Starship.
- December 2018 — Musk confirms the new ship has switched to stainless steel.
- January 2019 — Shortened “Starhopper” prototype unveiled and Musk explains the switch to steel.
- February 2019 — Raptor engine beats a long-standing rocket record.
- April 2019 — Starhopper completes a tethered “hop.”
- July 2019 — Starhopper launches 20 meters (67 feet).
- August 2019 — Starhopper launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- September 2019 — Starship Mk.1 full-size prototype unveiled.
- May 2020 — Starship SN4 full-size prototype completes a static test fire.
- August 2020 — SN5 launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- October 2020 — SN8 completes the first triple-Raptor static fire.
- December 2020 — SN8 launches 12.5 kilometers (41,000 feet).