Will the SN10 land safely? That was the question everyone was asking on Wednesday night about the Starship’s third test flight. Answer: yes!… And no. The prototype landed in one piece, before exploding a few minutes later. Nevertheless, this test is nonetheless a real success.
For this high altitude flight, SpaceX engineers had made modifications for the final phase of the flight, following the last crash of the SN9 prototype. After a first attempt aborted within a second this Wednesday evening, shortly after 9 p.m., the SN-10 finally took off shortly after midnight, before successfully landing on its pad in Boca Chica, Texas. A little crooked, of course, but in one piece. We then shouted victory. And for good reason, it was a real first!
The rest is a little less rosy. A fire was indeed triggered under the rocket at the time of landing. Several fire hoses seemed to control the incident, until a violent explosion propelled the vehicle several tens of meters above the ground. The SN10 is no longer, therefore. But he did the job.
Company founder and chief engineer Elon Musk still looked elated after the theft. “The SpaceX team is doing a great job! One day the real measure of success will be that Starship flights become commonplace“, does he have tweeted.
What happened ?
So the Starship program is progressing very clearly, even if, of course, it is difficult to ignore this new explosion. What happened then for this last test, on a technical level?
Like its predecessors SN8 and SN9, SN10 climbed to an altitude of around 10 km before executing a “belly flop” maneuver, thus beginning its descent back to Earth.
Unlike previous flights, the vehicle had no problem re-igniting its Raptor engines. For the first time, the three ignited as the prototype approached the ground, then one of them came to a stop, as expected. The SN10 then reoriented itself in a vertical position with its last two engines. Then, still as planned, the vehicle landed slowly on its pad with a single engine.
We know SpaceX engineers have encountered issues with the Starship’s truncated landing legs. On this level, they will be able to make some corrections. It also appeared that the vehicle bounced briefly upon touching the ground, and then a fire started at the base. The ship then straightened up, and for about ten minutes it stood there.
Suddenly, the vehicle rose several meters above the ground. SpaceX has yet to provide details on what really happened. However, knowledgeable sources have suggested the crash may have been caused by a methane leak. It is indeed notoriously difficult to operate fuel valves at cryogenic temperatures.
That being said, SpaceX engineers must be delighted that they successfully wiped out Raptor engine re-ignition issues. And for good reason, this essential procedure had been lacking during the first two attempts. The company had also recorded the same problems with the Merlin engines of the Falcon 9, at the beginning. For a spacecraft like the Starship, landing after just three tests at high altitude is therefore quite remarkable.
SpaceX also collected a lot of other significant data during this launch, helping to refine both the design of the spacecraft and its flight software. We are therefore impatiently awaiting the test of the SN11 prototype which, in all likelihood, will also attempt a flight at an altitude of ten kilometers.
What does NASA think?
It remains to be seen how NASA will react to this third test. Will it be considered a progress or a failure? The question arises, as the US agency prepares to choose the company that will supply the landing system for the Artemis III mission, which provides for the return of humans to the Moon. Given this new crash, NASA might not take the risk and opt for more conventional landers under development offered by the teams at Blue Origin and Dynetics.
That said, remember that the Starship is the subject of a unique development program, progressing in rapid iterations. SpaceX builds a new ship every two or three weeks, giving itself the ability to try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed. And NASA knows it very well.