SpaceX is all set to conduct a high-altitude test of its Starship rocket – a first for the spacecraft prototype design. The test will see Starship serial number 8 (SN8) fly from SpaceX’s development site in Cameron County, Texas, climb to a max height of around 41,000 feet, and then return to Earth during a controlled landing using its Raptor engines, if all goes exactly to plan. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has noted that things likely won’t go exactly to plan with this test, saying he anticipates they’ll achieve maybe 1/3 of their goals with this attempt.
This is the first time that Starship will be flying with three Raptor engines on board – prior short hop tests of earlier prototypes used just one. It’ll also involve a key maneuver that the Starship will ultimately be required to get right in order to achieve its reusability goal and return safely through Earth’s atmosphere when landing – a mid-air belly flop of sorts to orient it correctly to avoid burning up during re-entry.
SpaceX has flown Starship prototypes to a height of just under 500 feet, and successfully landed both with a controlled descent. This attempt will also include an attempt to relight Starship’s engines and return it to Earth in a vertical orientation, but those are much less likely to be successful at this stage vs. the earlier stage goals just reaching that max altitude and then ideally completing that ‘belly flop’ maneuver. Conducting tests like this with low likelihood of successful outcomes is absolutely par for the course for rocket development programs, but SpaceX is one of the few companies that conducts these out in the open – and perhaps the only that does so with live-streamed access for all.
Ultimately, Starship will prove the central component of a new generation of launch vehicle that SpaceX hopes to use to reach Mars – and to replace all of its current launch activities with Falcon vehicles, as well as to provide high-altitude point-to-point flights between destinations on Earth for hyper-fast travel. The production Starship will be paired with a Super Heavy rocket for additional thrust for high mass cargo missions and long-duration deep space trips.
The test launch today could happen anytime between roughly 9 AM EST (6 AM PST) and 6 PM EST (3 PM PST), and SpaceX says that it will begin the livestream shortly before the actual launch attempt, so stay tuned to the video above and our Twitter account for updates.