SpaceX Loses Starship Prototype SN9 in High-Altitude Test

SpaceX has lost its second Starship prototype in a couple of months with the loss of SN9 in a high-altitude test. Like its predecessor, SN8, this prototype was lost while attempting to land.

The failure of both prototypes appears to have been caused by a fault in the engine assembly. The full-sized mock-ups of SpaceX’s planned interplanetary rocket have a cluster of three Raptor engines. In the case of SN8, the prototype came in too fast after a seemingly successful test of ascent and a “bellyflop” maneuver that SpaceX was testing for descent.

The SN9 prototype rose to an apogee, or maximum altitude, of about ten kilometers before beginning its descent. The test included a transfer of propellant to the internal header tanks, which were meant to hold fuel for the attempted controlled descent and landing.

Similar to the SN8 test profile, SN9 also tested a “bellyflop” maneuver during descent. SpaceX also successfully tested active aerodynamic control during descent using the four signature flaps on the Starship rocket. The process could be automated using SN9’s onboard computer to enable a more precise landing.

One of the Raptor engines intended to slow the prototype during the landing attempt failed to ignite, which caused the loss of SN9. Some watchers have said that two failures, one in which the prototype could not produce enough thrust to slow down for a safe landing and another in which an engine failed to ignite, could indicate that the problem is with the Raptor engines and not the Starship rocket itself.

The similar issue with SN8 was apparently enough to spark a safety review by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The investigation delayed the SN9 test flight, much to the annoyance of Elon Musk, who criticized the FAA’s handling of space-related activity in a tweet.

The FAA has ruled that the SpaceX has violated its test flight license due to safety issues that have not yet been released publicly. Even with the apparent regulatory issues, SpaceX says that it is making progress toward a fully flight-worthy Starship. In a statement, the company said:

“These test flights are all about improving our understanding and development of 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.”

Once the Starship is ready for regular flights, SpaceX anticipates that it will be able to lift 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit. Like the Falcon rocket’s first stage boosters, which have been reused as many as five times for the launch of satellites, reusable Starships will help to bring the cost of interplanetary travel down.

This makes SpaceX’s launch services more affordable for private organizations who would like to launch satellites of varying sizes and can also save taxpayer dollars for things like launching ocean observation satellites and GPS satellites. It is also more environmentally friendly than simply discarding “spent” rocket stages and building new ones for each launch.

SpaceX still has the similar SN10 prototype, which was recently seen sitting beside its now-destroyed sister prototype at its launch facility in Boca Chica. Some observers interpreted the move of bringing both prototypes out as a silent protest of the FAA investigation into the loss of SN8.

There has been some speculation about when SN10 might launch, but SpaceX has not yet issued any statements on future testing of its Starship prototypes. Like the SN8 test, SpaceX says that it has gotten enough data from the SN9 test for engineers to analyze despite the loss of the prototype.