Spaceflight Insider

Starship SN9 lands hard following high-altitude test

Starship SN9 explodes as it impacts the landing zone in off nominal conditions. Image: Nicholas D'Alessandro, Spaceflight Insider

Starship SN9 explodes as it impacts the landing zone in off-nominal conditions. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro, Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX was finally able to launch its Starship SN9 prototype in a much-anticipated sophomore outing for the high-altitude test flight program. However, an engine issue appeared to cause the vehicle to land explosively.

Liftoff for Starship serial No. 9, also known as SN9, took place at 2:25 p.m. CDT (20:25 UTC) Feb. 2, 2021. Over the course of just over six minutes the experimental test vehicle liftoff off with three Raptor engines and slowly ascended to its target altitude of 10 kilometers, slightly lower than last month’s SN8 flight to 12.5 kilometers with every aspect of the test appearing nominal until the final seconds.

The SpaceX Starship SN9 takes to the skies over the company’s launch site in Boca Chica Texas. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro, Spaceflight Insider

One of the two Raptor engines that were planned to re-ignite for the landing burn appeared to have an issue and debris was seen ejected from the engine area seconds before the planned landing. As such, it did not ignite and not able to assist the Starship SN9 in righting itself for the final touch down.

Moments later, the stack landed near the landing pad on its side, creating a massive explosion.

Despite being near Starship SN10, the explosion didn’t appear to do much of any damage to what is expected to be the next high-altitude test article.

During the SN8 mission in December 2020, despite having the outward appearance of a flameout for the SN8 flight, we now know that each of the three Raptor engines shutting down in sequence was expected to slow SN9’s ascent to hover at altitude momentarily and then execute the signature “belly flop,” a controlled free fall on its side leading to the final landing “flip maneuver” to re-orient itself vertically for landing.

SpaceX later said the cause for the SN8 failure was low pressure in the fuel header tank inside the nose cone. The company said it remedied this deficiency by implementing a new additional fuel transfer technique mid-flight to add additional propellant to that header tank from main reserves as described in their website summary for the flight.

As of right now, it is unclear what caused one of the Raptor engines to not re-ignite for the Starship SN9 landing flip and burn maneuver.

This was one of the most rapid turnarounds for a Starship “hop.” Previous tests had multiple months of downtime between them.

Something appeared to be ejected from Starship SN9 moments after two Raptors began to ignite for its landing flip and burn. Credit: Nicholas D'Alessandro, Spaceflight Insider

Something appeared to be ejected from Starship SN9 moments after two Raptors began to ignite for its landing flip and burn. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro, Spaceflight Insider

Starship SN9 on the other hand, even with a series of mishaps such as tipping over in the high bay necessitating a flap replacement, needing two engines swapped after multiple static fires, and combating poor weather conditions for cancelled flight attempts, as well as working with the Federal Aviation Administration to secure flight approval, SpaceX managed to fly the vehicle only 55 days after SN8.

Musk and team appear ready to continue that rapid pace of testing with SN10 already on the second launch mount at the Boca Chica site. SN10 rolled out on Jan. 29, allowing spectators to see two Starships being readied for test flights.

Also near the landing pad was test tank SN7.2, with new thinner stainless steel construction to save weight on future iterations. SpaceX is continuing its series of tests culminating in an expected stress test to destruction.

Should SN7.2 pass all tests with flying colors, it is possible it could spell the demise of Starships SN11-14 which were being built with the older thicker stainless steel. Sections of those iterations have already been observed to be undergoing disassembly and scrapping procedures.

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 Mars as 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 and may even jockey with SLS for the task of taking NASA to the moon and beyond.

Video courtesy of SpaceX


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.

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