After a short delay due to the FAA’s request for further assurances on the possible dangers of crashes and explosions, Starship serial number 10 – Starship SN10 – lifted off from SpaceX‘s Cameron County launch pad and successfully ascended, transitioned propellant, and performed its landing flip maneuver with precise flap control to reach its landing point. And landed perfectly. This is an incredible achievement from SpaceX and it came sooner than anyone, including Elon Musk himself, could have imagined. At this rate, while NASA waits for the Perseverance robotic missions to bring samples back from Mars in the 2030s, Elon Musk’s Starships will already have people to the Red Planet to study the samples on location.
Similar to the high-altitude flight tests of Starship SN8 and SN9, SN10 was powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 km in altitude. SN10 performed a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and controlled aerodynamic descent.
The Starship prototype descended under active aerodynamic control, accomplished by independent movement of two forward and two aft flaps on the vehicle. All four flaps were actuated by an onboard flight computer to control Starship’s attitude during flight and enabled a precise landing at the intended location. SN10’s Raptor engines reignited as the vehicle performed the landing flip maneuver immediately before successfully touching down on the landing pad! [exclamation point left purposely]. The video of the entire performance seems taken straight out of a good Expanse episode.
As if the flight test was not exciting enough, SN10 experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly shortly after landing. All in all a great day for the Starship teams – 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.
SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket (collectively referred to as Starship – get your Starship User Guide here) represent a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit.
3D printing made it possible to develop the Raptor engines that took SN8 high above Earth’s surface, by producing the turbopump and many of the critical parts of the injectors for the initial engine development testing, and by increasing the speed of development and iterative testing. Now it will be necessary to use AM to produce more Starship structural and interior parts, in order to make the vehicle lighter. Once on the way to Mars, at least a couple of 3D printers on board will be necessary to produce necessary spare parts on demand.
Starship will enter Mars’ atmosphere at 7.5 kilometers per second and decelerate aerodynamically (which is one of the maneuvers that were tested in SN8’s flight). The vehicle’s heat shield is designed to withstand multiple entries, but given that the vehicle is coming into Mars’ atmosphere so hot, some ablation of the heat shield is expected. When it lands (probably around 2050, or so) it will find 3D printed habitats waiting.