SpaceX has once again flown its Starship spacecraft, a still-in-development space launch vehicle it’s building in south Florida. This test was a flight of SN9, the ninth in its current series of prototype rockets. The test involved flying SN9 to an altitude of around 10 km (just over six miles, or nearly 33,000 feet). After reaching that apogee, the SN9 spacecraft altered its attitude to angle for re-entry (simulated, since it didn’t actually leave Earth’s atmosphere) and then descended for a controlled landing.
This is the second test along these lines, with the first happening in December using its SN8 prototype, the one before this in the current series. Today’s test saw SN9 reach its target altitude as intended, and saw a successful “belly flop” maneuver, as well as the required propellant hand-off. This was also a successful test of the flaps on Starship, which control its angle as it moves through the air, and which alter their angle via on-board motors to do so. The landing portion didn’t go as smoothly — the spacecraft attempted to re-orient itself to go vertical for landing, but didn’t make it quite straight up-and-down, and also had too much speed going into the touchdown, so it exploded rather spectacularly when it hit the ground.
SpaceX had a very similar test the first time around, with things going mostly smoothly up until the landing portion of the mission. During SN8’s flight, the Starship prototype appeared to be better-oriented for landing before touching down too hard, but it’s difficult to say too much about which was more or less successful without access to the data and the testing parameters.
Starship is designed to perform this crucial maneuver as part of its approach to reusability — the spacecraft is intended to be fully reusable, and will accomplish this with a powered landing that includes, obviously, not the exploding component. As the company noted, however, the rest of this test looks pretty much like what they wanted to happen.
This kind of early testing isn’t expected to go exactly to plan, and the point is primarily to collect data that will help improve further attempts and spacecraft development. Of course, you’d hope to get things exactly right upon your first attempts, but it never actually works that way in rocketry. What is unusual is how public SpaceX is with its development program at this stage of testing.
The company will be back at it with another try soon. It already has its SN10 prototype set up on its launch site at its Texas facility, which is the other spaceship you see in the early part of the animation above.