Starship SN10 sticks the landing, explodes minutes later
SpaceX finally completed a key milestone in its Starship test program after three tries—successfully landing a Starship after a high-altitude flight and subsequent landing flip maneuver.
At 6:13 p.m. EST (23:13 UTC) March 3, 2021, SpaceX Starship SN10 took to the Texas skies in the third of its kind high-altitude test flight of the vehicle type’s development program. The flight occurred as part of the second attempt for the day, with the launch computers automatically aborting the first attempt with less than a second before liftoff, because of an overly-conservative engine parameter. Thee was a work period of approximately 3 hours between attempts.
The experimental test vehicle lifted off and slowly ascended to its target height of about 10 kilometers with every aspect of the test appearing nominal. However, at 6:29 p.m., a number of minutes after successfully landing on the target concrete pad, an explosion at the vehicle’s base lifted the entire structure into the air more than 50 meters before it came crashing back down in flames.
The test flight featured the second revision of the landing burn procedure, optimized following the hard landings of SN8 and SN9.
After SN8, it was determined that a mid-flight fuel transfer to the header tank with landing propellant was required to maintain adequate pressure levels, and after SN9 it was determined that all three Raptor engines would need to reignite during the landing flip procedure followed by shutdown of the least desirable one to create redundancy in the event of the failed ignition on one of the Raptors; this is what led to the demise of SN9.
On previous landing attempts, only two engines were reignited for the flip, meaning loss of power in either one would all but guarantee the vehicle’s destruction.
That landing today appeared nominal, but after the smoke settled, Starship SN10 could be seen to be leaning slightly, with a fire near the base of the vehicle. Minutes later, a large explosion at the base of the test article created a fireball cloud and blew the rocket almost fully intact high into the Texas sky, prior to crashing back down seconds later.
Despite the post-landing explosion, Starship SN10 was able to accomplish what SN8 and SN9 could not, proving out that the aforementioned landing burn revisions were indeed successful.
This comes as a strong validation of SpaceX’s pioneering testing procedures, which allow for (and to some extent, even requires that) some test vehicles be permitted to crash in order to collect data and implement new procedures to avoid future ones.
“Starship SN10 landed in one piece!” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a series of tweets following landing. “SpaceX team is doing great work! One day, the true measure of success will be that Starship flights are commonplace.”
He later tweeted “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”
This would have been one of the most rapid turnarounds for a Starship “hop”, had mother nature not made other plans with the winter storm that slammed the state and halted Starship testing for some time.
Starship SN10 featured the quickest turnaround time for an engine swap of any Starship prototype, coming in at 48 hours, with previous ones causing weeks of delays for SN8 and SN9. This is proof postive that SpaceX is quickly maturing their process for the swaps.
Musk and team appear ready to continue the rapid pace of testing with a rollout of the next Starship in line, SN11, expected to happen soon with all components on test vehicle believed to now be installed.
The test tank SN7.2, with new, thinner stainless steel construction (which will save weight on future iterations), has also completed testing and now stands at the test site.
It appears confirmed at this point that with those successful material tests in hand, SpaceX is now scrapping their plans for Starships SN12-SN14. Sections of those iterations have already been observed to be undergoing disassembly and scrapping procedures, while SN15 underwent stacking in the Mid Bay and now sits in a position to roll into the High Bay once SN11 vacates that location.
Super Heavy booster testing is also expected soon as the first booster prototype, BN1, is nearly finished stacking in the High Bay; components of BN2 have already been spotted nearby.
Major new construction at the orbital launch site will support the fully integrated test vehicles, and appears to confirm that the age of the combined Starship Super Heavy will soon be upon us.
Starship and its booster “Super Heavy” are ultimately planned to bring large quantities of cargo and passengers to destinations in low Earth orbit, the Moon and of course Mars – Musk’s endgame vision.
Once in final production and out of the prototype phase, the massive launch system will likely replace Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, once their operational lifespans are deemed obsolete by SpaceX. Who knows – as vehicles evolve and are further tested, they may even jockey with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) for the task and honor of taking NASA to the Moon and beyond.
Nicholas D'Alessandro was born and raised in Southwest Florida. The seeds of his interest in Space Exploration were planted when the Shuttle's sonic boom upon re-entry would reverberate through his childhood home even across the state; the knowledge that a real life spacecraft was passing overhead and could have that effect was fascinating to him. A middle school field trip to the Kennedy Space Center cemented that fascination, and with an additional interest in the bleeding edge of automotive technology and Teslas, it was the story of Elon Musk's path to Cape Canaveral with SpaceX that finally led Nicholas to move to the Space Coast and, after joining Spaceflight Insider in 2020, begin documenting the dawning era of commercial spaceflight.
It was a splendid achievement in the launching/return but from the observed attitude of the rocket after landing it was apparent that some mechanical breakdown of landing gear occurred. I expect that is the next area of re-design that will take place.
All in all quite a remarkable test and hopefully something good and positive will emerge during the ‘autopsy’ . Well done.