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SpaceX to try launching, landing Starship rocket without blowing it up


  • SpaceX is preparing to launch the latest prototype of its Starship spacecraft — a system that could one day carry humans to Mars — as early as Monday.
  • The new prototype, called serial No. 9 or SN9, is set to rocket tens of thousands of feet in the air, belly-flop toward the ground, and re-fire its engines to flip upright and land. SpaceX’s first attempt at such a flight exploded on the landing pad.
  • Several live video feeds should broadcast the launch attempt, so bookmark this page; we’ll embed them closer to launch.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

SpaceX is preparing to rocket the latest prototype of its Starship spaceship thousands of feet into the air, then land it gently back on the ground.

If the company can pull off this tricky maneuver — cutting the rocket’s engines back on as it plummets toward Earth, just in time to turn it upright, slow its fall, and steadily set down on a landing pad — it will be the first time a Starship vehicle has ventured so high and returned in one piece.

Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, wants the final Starship-Super Heavy launch system to be fully and rapidly reusable. If Musk’s plan succeeds, Starship may slash the cost of reaching space 1,000-fold, power round-the-world hypersonic travel on Earth, and fly astronauts to the moon. Musk has said that his ultimate plan is to build 1,000 Starships that will carry enough people and cargo to Mars to build an independent, self-sustaining city there.

SpaceX first launched a Starship prototype of this kind on December 8. Called Starship serial No. 8, or SN8, it roared tens of thousands of feet above the company’s expanding facilities at Boca Chica, Texas. SN8 then tipped its nosecone forward, cut off its engines, and began to plummet. As the vehicle neared the ground in a belly-flop-like freefall, it re-fired its engines to flip upright and slow its descent.

However, low pressure in a propellant tank caused the spaceship to fall too fast, slam into its landing pad, and catastrophically explode.

SpaceX still considered the seven-minute test flight a success, though, because it was inherently an experiment — and one that flew higher than ever before and performed unprecedented maneuvers. For example, SN8’s flight achieved sequential rocket-engine shutdowns, aerial flips, and a belly flop made stable via wing flaps. (Previous test flights had been “hops,” with prototypes launching a few hundred feet into the air, then landing downrange.)

Now SpaceX is set for another major test flight, and this time it could stick the landing. Like its predecessor, the new prototype, called SN9, is 16 stories tall and powered by three Raptor engines. SN9 tipped over inside a vertical assembly building on December 11, but SpaceX appeared to make quick repairs and roll it out to a beachside launch pad.

starship sn9 fall spacex boca chica texas

The SN9, fallen over inside the vertical assembly building, December 11, 2020.

@SpacePadreIsle on Twitter

In preparation for launch, SpaceX clamped down the SN9 and test-fired its engines three times on January 13 — a record static-fire rate for the Starship program. After that, two of the engines needed repairs, Musk tweeted the next day. He added that he’s hoping SpaceX can speed up the engine-swapping process so that it takes “a few hours at most.” The company conducted another static fire on Wednesday.

Now SpaceX appears to be targeting a Monday launch. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace closure notice for a rocket launch from Boca Chica that day, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CST. The agency has issued similar notices for Tuesday and Wednesday — back-up dates in case weather or glitches cause SpaceX to delay the test flight.

The FAA gave its first notices the week of January 13, then more for this week, but SpaceX seems to have delayed the test flight.

Both an airspace closure and local road closures are required for launch, but the Cameron County judge has not yet issued Boca Chica road-closure notices for next week.

How to watch SN9’s launch attempt live

starship sn9 prototype spacex boca chica texas

The SN9 during static-fire testing in Boca Chica, Texas, on January 13, 2021.

@SpacePadreIsle on Twitter

SpaceX may broadcast the launch attempt live on YouTube. Several online broadcasters, such as NASASpaceFlight.com and LabPadre, also plan to stream live video footage of the flight. We will embed these live feeds below once they’re available.

A series of events typically precedes a Starship prototype launch. A couple of hours beforehand, SpaceX will clear the launch site of personnel. Roughly an hour ahead of flight, storage tanks at the launch site will begin venting gases as SpaceX prepares to fuel Starship with cryogenic fuels. Fueling later causes Starship to vent gases out of its top, signaling that launch could occur within minutes.

Poor weather, a technical glitch, or a boat entering the launch’s danger zone — a new challenge for Starship — could lead to delays.

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published at 1 p.m. EST on January 15, 2021.

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