Starship Rocket Overview
- Propellant production in Boca Chica will be important to optimize the supply chain.
- Rapidly reusable rockets – like air travel or car travel, you don’t get a new car every time you take a trip.
- Re-usability will allow flying the booster 20 times per day, and the ship 3-4 times per day. Reason ships can only be used a few times a day: since ship goes to orbit, the track of a satellite is sinusoidal (unless it is equatorial or san-synchronous). you have to wait for the ground path to sync up with the launch site. It takes like 6 hours to sync up.
- Satellite Delivery: Currently, the company uses Falcon to deliver satellites for Starlink. Starship will be able to deliver satellites further and at a lower marginal cost per launch, as Startship has a much greater payload..
- SpaceX created the Raptor engine, which has a very high specific impulse. Because Earth’s gravity is quite high, we are just on the cusp of reusable rockets being physically possible. Raptor engine (it will have 6 engines) uses mostly oxygen per unit of fuel (3.5 tons of oxygen for every 1 ton of fuel).
- Making it to orbit was tough… landing the rocket was tougher, and SpaceX was the first to do so.
Reducing Launch Mass
- Steel: the rocket it made of steel. It has the perfect combination of strength and heat resistance. Because of this, the rocket will be able to have a smaller heat shield, and only need a heat shield on 1 side of the ship. This will reduce launch mass.
- Orbital re-fueling: Starship attaches to another rocket containing fuel while in orbit, making it pace.
SpaceX has published a quite succinct user guide with detailed information.
- Engine: Raptor
- Fuel: Methane and Liquid Oxygen (CH4 and LOX)
- Length: 72 meters
- Diameter: 9 meters
- Material: Stainless Steel
- Payload: 100 tons
- Nomenclature: SN9 stands for “Serial Number 9”
Starship performed its first test flight on July 26, 2019 and has so far performed 6 orbital test flights.
Starship SN8 Test Flight Recap
Starship – the grand vessel that will take humans to Mars – performs its historic 12.5 km launch.
On December 9th, 2020, people gathered on the beaches, parking lots and balconies in the surrounding areas of South Padre Island in Boca Chica, Texas. Space enthusiasts had flown in, YouTubers had their streaming cameras live and ready, and millions more tuned in remotely in anticipation of SpaceX Starship’s 12.5 km unmanned “hop”.
All day, people waited. Hours pass, with not much action. The first sign of advancement was the formation of a small condensation ring on the body of the spacecraft, just above the fins. This happens during fueling, caused by the overflow of liquid oxygen from the condenser as it fills the tanks. The rapid expansion of pressurized gas (in this case, liquified oxygen) is an endothermic process in which the gas loses heat energy, making the surroundings extremely cold.
Liquid oxygen is an important component of the fuel, serving as the oxidizer. Starship uses liquid oxygen (aka LOX), and Methane (CH4) as rocket fuel.
Key Events from Starship Hop:
- Successful ascent
- Successful switchover to header tanks
- Successful pivot
- Flap control
- Longest in-flight firing of a raptor engine
- In control until the end
- On target
- Sufficient data gathered
As the engines fire, there is no turning back. All or nothing, skyward.
As the rocket takes off, as clouds instantly balloon to twenty times their size. As they grow larger, and seem to resemble exhaust smoke, the clouds are actually just steam, H2O water vapor. This is the main byproduct of the combustion reaction.
The other byproduct of the combustion reaction between methane and liquid oxygen is carbon dioxide, which is invisible.
Surprisingly, shortly after launch, one of the Raptor engines goes out, leaving the rocket with 2 engines to finish the remainder of the test flight.
From the multiple YouTube live-steams, including EverydayAstronaut, NasaSpaceflight.com, SpaceX, and more, there was some confusion among viewers.
It is unclear whether or not this was a planned outage or not, as Starship has three engines, and the other two can function completely fine on their own. Being down to two engines did not appear to interrupt the flight, and there is a chance this was done purposefully in order to control fuel loads.
As Starship progressed further towards the peak of its flight, another raptor engine apparently shut off, which is also believed to have been intentional. At this point, the rocket began to progress skyward on just a single engine. Moving at a slight angle it performing a couple of hover maneuvers, barely in view of the cameras.
At this point, the flight was over 4.5 minutes in total, 10:16:04 on nasaspaceflight video, and the rockets had been firing the entire time.
The Belly Flop
The next occurrence was the “belly flop”, a stunt where Starship will orient itself 90 degrees sideways, falling horizontal to the Earth’s surface at terminal velocity.
The photos above and below were taken just 7 seconds apart, during which time the rocket appears to have repositioned itself by over 45 degrees. We can tell that Starship has quickly begun its free-fall because none of the engines are firing at this point.
As Starship continues to fall, it surprisingly further orients itself towards the Earth, nose down. Watching the video live, the nosedive appeared slightly nerve wracking, but it was in fact planned and supposed to happen, thankfully.
The wing-like flaps of the rocket, two on the front and two on the back, angle themselves skyward to apply air resistance drag to control the direction of its free-fall.
As Starship nears the Earth’s surface, the flaps are doing their job. Starship appears to float almost effortlessly towards Earth’s surface, during which time we getting the sense that terminal velocity doesn’t actually seem that fast when we’re watching such a massive vehicle.
When its time for the cigar-shaped rocket to begin preparing for the landing, two of its raptor engines re-engage, swiveling at an angle to control the degree to which it will turn. Within half a second, the ship has rotated ninety degrees, now facing vertically. Starship then re-orients itself vertically again for the landing.
The Rocket’s Downfall
In the moments leading up to landing something strange starts to happen as Starship gets closer to the landing pad.
The flame turns green, as if this is a prelude to some gnarly fireworks display. It is unclear what causes the color change.
Looking closely, the human eye can observe a slight angle between Starship and the landing pad, which is a sign that something is not quite right.
It was at this moment that we all knew destruction would be inevitable.
In the photo to the right, we know something is wrong for two reasons:
- Skewed angle of Starship
- There are no landing leg folding out
As soon as Starship hits the ground, it immediately explodes, disintegrating, leaving almost no remains. Apparently, the driving cause of this was “lack of header tank pressure”. This means there was not enough fuel to produce the required thrust to slow down the rocket before the landing pad.
In the inevitabilities of what seem to be failure, somehow, the company still managed to put on a show. SpaceX Starship SN8 hop test flight ended with a literal BANG.
It seems there is consensus among SpaceX that many test objectives were successfully achieved. The company was able to gather sufficient data, so… the mission was a success! (regardless of the fact that they didn’t quite “stick the landing”).
All in all, the rocket was airborne for 6 minutes and 42 seconds, and was well in aerodynamic control the entire time up until the crash landing.
What did you expect? SpaceX has a long history of testing rockets, many of which have failed the first time. As with any innovative and new technology, there’s never any guarantee. But one thing is for sure – SpaceX Starship will fly again. There will be another test flight in the not too distant future. There were a few key wins and objectives complete, which we will stay updated about as we learn more.
Wins for Starship
- “Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!” – Elon
- This was the longest in-flight firing of a raptor engine, ever.
- The spaceship was in fine-tuned control almost the entire time.
- Starship demonstrated a successful pivot
- SpaceX gathered all the data they need.
- The world has been inspired.
The victorious path towards Mars is well underway, its going to happen faster than we realize! Stay updated with the latest on Starship, missions to Mars, and more space technology by signing up for the newsletter.
SN9 Starship Test Flight
SN9 test flight of Starship was delayed a few times, but fortunately it finally launched last week.
Spoiler – the flight ended much the same way that SN8 did – with a big, fiery explosion.
On 2/2/21, according to Twitter, Starship launch area was being cleared of vehicles. Launch anticipated for today and it happened! Starship SN9 launched.
On 1/26/21, Elon confirmed on Twitter that the FAA has reviewing the prospective test flight.
Starship launchpad update: on 1/19/21, SpaceX purchased two floating oil rigs which will become floating launchpads for Starship. The two launchpads have been called Deimos and Phobos, named after the two moons of Mars.
SN9 UPDATE 1/14/21: Starship SN9 performed three static fire tests.
What is a “Static Fire”?
– A static fire is a planned system test that launch vehicles and ground support equipment undergo to verify that the rocket is ready for flight.
– During a static fire, the rocket’s engines briefly perform a test fire while staying bolted to the ground.
– The goal of a static fire test is to identify problems during the test, before the actual launch.
SN9 performed another static fire on January 6, 2020. A successful landing of SN9 would be a major milestone.
Delays of scheduled flights are common due to weather as well as the FAA regulations
Starship SN10 Launch and Landing
Starship SN10 (the rocket that will take humans to Mars) performed a historic launch, test flight, and landing on March 3rd, 2020 in Boca Chica, Texas.
Averaging 1 test flight per month (3 flights have happened since December 9, 2020), SpaceX plans to one day have regularly occurring Starship flights carrying payloads including smallsats, Starlink satellites, and eventually humans.
The high altitude flight test began much like previous Starship flights of SN8 as well as SN9, with much anticipation, a few delays, and thankfully a successful take off.
Early in the day SN10 had a launch attempt, but the computer stopped the countdown just before lift-off because the thrust of a raptor engine slightly exceeded the allowable limit.
The team did a few evaluations, and later decided that the engines were good to go, ready for a second attempt.
Launch delays have occurred quite often leading up to the previous launches of both Starship prototypes as well as Falcon 9 Starlink missions.
Purpose of Starship SN10 test flight:
The goal of the SN10 test flight is to launch and fly to an altitude of 10 km while gathering data on how well the flaps function to control the vehicle while it is horizontal.
According to SpaceX’s website:
“A controlled aerodynamic descent with body flaps and vertical landing capability, combined with in-space refilling, are critical to landing Starship at destinations across the solar system where prepared surfaces or runways do not exist, and returning to Earth. This capability will enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.”
The rockets SpaceX is using for these test flights are not built to carry humans (yet) – they are very much prototypes built to be used as test vehicles.
During flight, SN10 engines shut down sequentially. The purpose of the engine shutdown is to reduce thrust, slow the rocket down, so that it doesn’t go higher and about 10 km as planned. Starship was not planning to enter orbit or reach higher altitudes.
Three raptor engines were intentionally shut off one by one and Starship was at one point accelerating vertically on just one engine.
As it reached apogee, peaking at around 10 km altitude, Starship hovered in equilibrium, where the engine thrust force was equal to the force of gravity.
Apogee is the point at which an object (such as a moon, satellite, or in this case, Starship) is furthest from Earth.
Finally, the last raptor engine shut off, and Starship began its free-fall descent. Controlled by the flaps, Starship rocket maintained aerodynamic control with a high degree of finesse.
The rocket continued falling, rotating into the famous “belly flop”.
Starship continued to fall in its belly flop, reaching terminal velocity. Eventually the engines re-lit to make the entire vehicle to rotate vertically in preparation for landing.
From the viewer’s perspective, the rocket appeared to be somewhat slanted from vertical as it landed moved towards the landing pad.
Space enthusiasts across the globe held their breath in anticipation, watching live streams as Starship inched closer to the landing pad.
Creating a huge cloud of dust, Starship SN10 has history, successfully landing. There was no explosion on landing, as happened with both SN8 and SN9.
Starship gleamed in the south Texas sun on the landing pad, while the rocket’s reflective steel shell illuminated, signifying a job well done. Congrats, SpaceX team!
Post-flight ends with a big bang
Although the rocket did land successfully, SN10 would not have fit in with both SN9 and SN8 if it didn’t ultimately end with a rapid unplanned disassembly. As viewed from the streaming cameras of Everyday Astronaut and others, a few minutes after landing, SN10 exploded.
While Starship is of course still not passenger ready, viewers get to enjoy the excitement of a massive explosion that resembles something out of a Hollywood movie.
It is unclear what caused the explosion, but according to Toby Li’s tweet here, SN10’s landing legs may have been damaged.
Regardless, the high-altitude flight test of SN10 was a massive success.
The SpaceX YouTube channel provides footage and commentary from the SpaceX team. The commentator mentioned that the next test flight would be held with Starship SN11.
SpaceX was able to record a few segments of amazingly high-definition video. The ultra up close take-off and landing clips appear to have been taken via drone and are quite spectacular.
Sources & Streams that are worth checking out:
- NASAspaceflight stream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8bZkTjEnXw
- LabPadre Stream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ky5l9ZxsG9M
- SpaceX Stream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ap-BkkrRg-o
- Everyday Astronaut Stream: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBELXjq_X-M
- Starship user guide: https://www.spacex.com/media/starship_users_guide_v1.pdf
2 comments on “SpaceX Starship Overview, Test Flight Recaps”
These are exciting times for mankind as we take dreams into reality. Drive on to new heights SpaceX, Drive on Forward to the Stars!