On Tuesday, February 2nd, and after Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) related delays, SpaceX starship prototype SN9 took to the skies over southern Texas in the second high altitude flight test for the starship programme.
The flight itself, to some 10 km altitude, followed by a skydive descent to around the 2 km altitude mark, was remarkably successfully – as was the case with the first high-altitude flight (to 12 km on that occasion) seen with starship prototype SN8 in December 2020 (see: Space Sunday: the flight of SN8 and a round-up). However, and also like the SN8 flight, things went off-kilter during the final element of the flight, resulting in a complete loss of the vehicle.
As I’ve previously noted, the route of staship prototype SN9 from fabrication high bay to launch stand had been remarkably fast compared to that of SN8, leading to speculation that the anticipated second flight test could occur in January. However, while the vehicle remained on the launch stand going through numerous pre-flight tests, including numerous Raptor engine re-start tests (which actually saw two of the motors swapped-out), things appeared stalled before that final step of an actual flight.
This now appears to be down to the fact that the FAA weren’t entirely happy with SpaceX over the flight of SN8, which effectively went ahead without proper approval. In short, SpaceX applied for a waiver against the licence the FAA had granted for starship flight testing which would have allowed the company to exceed “maximum public risk as allowed by federal safety regulations”.
At the time, the waiver was denied – but the SN8 launch went ahead, violating the required safety limits, and whilst no-one was injured in the crash of SN8, the FAA correctly ordered a full investigation into the flight and also the safety culture and management oversight of SpaceX operations. Those investigations not only took time to complete, but also afterwards required FAA review and make modifications to the licence granted to SpaceX to carry out starship prototype flights.
If a licensee violates the terms of their launch license, they did so knowing that an uninvolved member of the public could have been hurt or killed. That is not exaggeration. They took a calculated risk with your life and property … If the FAA does not enforce their launch licenses, it will damage the long-term viability of the launch industry and damage their credibility with Congress. It is possible that the industry could suffer significant regulatory burdens enforced by Congress to ensure safety.
– Former deputy chief of staff and senior FAA adviser Jared Zambrano-Stout,
commenting on SpaceX launching SN8 without the request licence waiver
The required licence modifications were not completed until February 1st, the day on which SpaceX initially attempted to launch SN9, and their lack of their availability may have been the reason that attempt was scrubbed, resulting in the February 2nd attempt.
Coverage of the test flight started very early on the morning (local time) on February 2nd, with SpaceX providing multiple camera points around the launch stand and on the vehicle, as well as via drones flying overhead In addition, spaceflight enthusiast such as NASASpaceflight.com also provided coverage from multiple points around the Boca Chica, Texas, site, including video recorded by Mary “BocaChicaGirl”, who provides a daily 24/7 feed of activity at the site.
The vehicle, with prototype SN10 occupying a second launch stand nearby, lifted-off at 20:25:15 UTC, following a 25 minutes delay due a range safety violation – one of the circumstances of concern to the FAA. However, the ascent itself was flawless, with the vehicle rapidly climbing to altitude over the next four minutes, two of the Raptors shutting down as it did so to reduce the dynamic stresses on the vehicle in light of it being only partially fuelled and to ensure it didn’t overshoot the planned apogee for the flight.
This came at 20:29:15 UTC, with the vehicle entering a brief hover using its one firing motor, as fuel supplies were switched from the main tanks to the smaller “header” tanks that would be used to power the engines during landing manoeuvres. At this point, the remaining motor shut down as the reaction control system (RCS) thrusters fired, gently pushing the vehicle over from vertical and into its skydive position, where the fore and aft aerodynamic surfaces could be used to stabilise the vehicle during descent.
This phase of the descent lasted just over 2 minutes, with the order given to re-start two of the Raptor engines given at 20:31:35 UTC. These engines should have then gimballed and used their thrust, together with the forward RCS thrusters to return the vehicle to a vertical pose before one of the motors again shut down and the second slowed the vehicle into a propulsive, tail-first landing.
Both of these motors fire a split second apart, and footage of the rear of the vehicle suggests that the first may have suffered a mis-fire before starting correctly. However, the second motor appears to have suffered a catastrophic failure on re-start, possibly involving a turbopump failure: as it ignited, debris could clearly be seen being blown clear of the vehicle.
With only one operational main engine, SN9 was unable to stop its change in flight profile and remain upright. Instead, it continued to rotate and become inverted just before it struck the landing pad in what SpaceX refer to as “an energetic, rapid unscheduled disassembly” (that’s “exploded on impact” for the rest of us).
No official word on the failure has been given – obviously, SpaceX will need time for a thorough investigation, and will likely have the FAA watching closely. It is also not clear if the material coming away from the vehicle is actually parts of the engine, or sections of the engine skirt blown clear of the vehicle. As some are still to be drifting down to the ground fairly close to SN10 on its launch stand, it is possible they are from the vehicle’s skin.