SpaceX was forced to delay its recent Starship rocket launch, but the issue with the Raptor engines was sorted out in time for the second launch window yesterday (December 9th) afternoon. The launch itself went off without a hitch, sending the vessel up to 41,000 feet. That’s a major milestone for the Starship, but the landing… well, that was more of a crash. SpaceX is still calling this one a win, though.
Previous versions of the in-development Starship have only managed very short hops at no more than a few hundred feet above the ground. The SN8 prototype that flew yesterday had three Raptor engines for the first time, allowing it to get much higher. That part of the mission was no problem — in fact, everything was just fine until the very end of the flight.
There are precious few reusable rockets in the world, and none of them are as large as the Starship. Still, the plan is to land Starship cores in the same way as the Falcon 9, and that was part of the test flight. As the SN8 Starship came down, it performed a flip maneuver to get its engines pointed at the ground. The 160-foot rocket is by far the largest spacecraft to ever perform such a maneuver. Even though the flip is followed almost immediately by an explosion, SpaceX still took the opportunity to show off that flip.
Starship landing flip maneuver pic.twitter.com/QuD9HwZ9CX
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 10, 2020
As for the crash, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the rocket experienced low fuel header tank pressure. That caused it to come down faster than expected. The hard landing was enough to rupture the tanks and blow the Starship SN8 to smithereens. There’s no doubt SpaceX would prefer the rocket didn’t blow up, but everyone seems to be taking this one in stride. After all, SpaceX builds these prototypes with the expectation they’ll all fail at some point, and it’s letting us watch. Musk says SpaceX gathered all the data it needed from the test, and it will continue testing with the SN9 prototype in the near future.
SO CLOSE! What a win though! pic.twitter.com/hbGhe1VOYi
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) December 9, 2020
Eventually, SpaceX hopes to transition all its launch operations to the Starship, previously known as the BFR or Big Falcon Rocket. It will be able to fly to even the most challenging Earth orbits, as well as the moon, Mars, and beyond. In fact, Musk hopes to use the Starship to colonize Mars starting as little as four years from now. That’s maybe looking a bit less plausible following the explosive end of yesterday’s test, but the Starship is still an incredible piece of engineering even at this stage.
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