The dramatic two-minute clip shows the uncrewed rocket taking off from the firm’s Boca Chica, Texas testing facility at 5:45pm ET (10:45pm GMT) on December 9.
It’s seen performing an aerobatic landing flip manoeuvre and a controlled descent before hitting the ground around six minutes after lift-off in a spectacular orange fireball.
SpaceX is planning to send humans to Mars using a two-stage spacecraft composed of Starship (the passenger-carrying section) and the Super Heavy rocket booster.
However, the firm has some work to do to finish the construction of the $216 million Starship, previously known as ‘BFR’, at SpaceX’s Texas development site.
Starship SN8 – short for ‘serial number eight’ – is the latest prototype to have lifted off and is set to be followed by SN9, which rolled out onto its launchpad on Tuesday and will launched in the coming weeks.
The test flight went up 7.8 miles, attempted a ‘belly flop’ in the air, turned back upright then aimed to land safely back at the testing facility in Texas but failed due to coming in too fast and crash landing
‘Starship serial number 8 (SN8) completed a high-altitude flight test as it successfully ascended, transitioned propellant, and demonstrated a first-of-its-kind controlled aerodynamic descent and landing flip maneuver,’ SpaceX said.
‘[This] will enable landing where prepared surfaces or runways do not exist, including the Moon, Mars, and beyond.’
From various camera angles – some of which were mounted on SN8 itself – the annotated video shows the various engine cutoff points following blast-off and a mid-air reorientation before the first ever test of Starship’s impressive ‘flip’ manoeuvre.
SN8 successfully reached its goal of getting as high as 7.8 miles (41,000 feet), soaring out over the Gulf of Mexico.
After about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border.
It soared out over the Gulf of Mexico and after about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border
SN8 attempted a ‘belly flop’ manoeuvre where it tilted 90 degrees to mimic the way it would return through Earth’s atmosphere after a space flight
The sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ maneuver by Musk, was designed to mimic the technique Starship will use when returning through Earth’s atmosphere from space – presenting the ‘belly’ as it enters the atmosphere reduces the speed of descent as it approaches the ground.
The rocket exploded the moment it hit the ground, leaving nothing behind but what remained of the craft’s nose cone, debris and a cloud of smoke.
Musk, however, deemed the launch a success, saying that the prototype – even though it was destroyed – collected a trove of data that will bring SpaceX one step closer to sending humans to Mars.
Although Musk has not revealed the cost of building a single Starship, SpaceX says its Falcon 9 rocket comes to $54 million, while the Starship is said to cost ‘roughly four times as much to build’.
This would bring the total cost of the launch of the SN8 to $216 million, according to the private financial and investing advice company Motely Fool.
SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk in Los Angeles, California last year. SpaceX will launch the next Starship prototype, SN9, in the coming weeks
The SpaceX Starship rocket exploded the moment it hit the ground following its first high-altitude flight on December 9, 2020
The SN8 craft became engulfed in flames and ruptured when it landed, leaving nothing behind but debris and cloud of smoke
Musk shared his excitement of the launch on Twitter on December 9, writing: ‘Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!’
‘Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!’
The CEO later thanked South Texas for their support in a separate tweet, followed by another one that says ‘Mars, here we come!!’
The full-scale, stainless steel prototype stood at 160 feet (50 meters) tall and was 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter.
It was the first Starship prototype equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines.
It was shooting for an altitude of up to eight miles (12.5 kilometres), which is almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere.
The massive rocket took off from the firm’s Boca Chica testing facility at 5:45pm ET on December 9, igniting its powerful Raptor engines
Starship soared straight up into the air for its first high-altitude flight and over the Gulf of Mexico before performing its in-flight manoeuvres
The sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ maneuver by Musk, was designed to mimic the technique Starship will use when returning through Earth’s atmosphere – presenting the ‘belly’ reduces the speed of descent as it approaches the ground
The flight lasted for just over six minutes and 40 seconds before the engines shut down and SN8 began its journey back
SN8 – soon to be followed by SN9 – successfully hit its goal of reaching an elevation of 7.8 miles (41,000 feet). Previous prototypes only hit 500 feet
Elon Musk recently tweeted that a ‘lot of things need to go right’ for it to land back on solid ground after the suborbital flight
‘With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn,’ SpaceX wrote in a statement
The test flight was initially set for December 2, then pushed to December 4 and then to December 7 then it was scheduled again for December 8, which was scrubbed at the last minute, before finally going ahead the next day.
This ‘hop’ was a historic event for SpaceX, as previous prototypes only hit 500 feet in the air – but it also proved the most destructive.
Prior to the launch, Musk had tweeted that a ‘lot of things need to go right’ for it to land back on solid ground, adding there is ‘probably 1/3 chance of completing all mission objectives.’
In the end, SN8’s Raptor engines reignited for braking, sending the rocket from on its side directly upright.
Upon touching down, however, the craft became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering.
The entire flight lasted just over six minutes and 40 seconds.
The Starship two-stage-to-orbit heavy lift vehicle has been in development since 2012 and is designed to bring the cost of launch down by being more reusable.
The high-altitude flight was focused on testing a number of features of the giant spaceship, that could take the first passengers to Mars as early as 2026, according to Musk.
These tests include the vehicle’s three Raptor engines, the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities including body flaps, and the landing flip manoeuvre.
Going up just under eight miles is not enough to take it into space – but as all previous ‘hops’ have been measured in feet rather than miles, SN8 was a big step forward.
The edge of space is agreed by NASA and others to be 50 miles above sea level but to go into orbit you need to get to at least 100 miles above sea level.
Going up just under eight miles is not enough to take it into space – but as all previous ‘hops’ have been measured in feet rather than miles – it is a significant step forward
The test flight was initially set for December 2, then pushed to December 4 (pictured) and then to December 7 when it was again Tuesday, which was scrubbed at the last minute
The development of Starship has been rapid, with new prototypes and next generation models developed concurrently to allow for quick changes.
In the past year alone SpaceX has completed two low-altitude flight tests with SN5 and SN6 and more than 16,000 seconds of run time during ground engine starts.
‘Additionally, with production accelerating and fidelity increasing, SpaceX has built 10 Starship prototypes. SN9 is almost ready to move to the pad, which now has two active stands for rapid development testing,’ the firm said.
The landing is one of the most important aspects as it needs to be fully reusable to achieve the goals and price per flight set out by the SpaceX team.
There are a number of potential uses for Starship, including deploying hundreds of satellites into orbit at one time and landing astronauts on the Moon and Mars.
The SpaceX CEO previously said there was a ‘fighting chance’ the first Starship flight to Mars could happen as early as 2024 – the year NASA plans to send the first woman and next man back to the surface of the Moon.
‘In terms of the test, I think that Elon Musk is right. It did achieve some of the important milestones that were needed – very specifically taking such a large rocket off the Earth, even though it was not into orbital flight,’ space instrument engineer Tom Pike of Imperial College London told BBC Radio 4 after the rocket test.
‘This test was extremely challenging because it was a test. Instead of going anywhere, it was landing with almost a full fuel load […] that huge mass was putting a great stress on the retro system to land,’ he explained.
‘Whenever you test systems, you normally want to do one thing at a time. But SpaceX are in a huge rush to get to Mars and I think that, in this particular case, they were testing one too many systems to make sure that the test itself was going to be a complete success.
‘Elon Musk realised that. So, they’re overstressing their testing, but they’re also running at a huge speed to get to Mars,’ the expert concluded.
The high-altitude test of a Starship prototype involves the three massive raptor engines to see how they manage in flight
The giant rocket will eventually take satellites into orbit as well as passengers and payload to the Moon and Mars over the coming decades
The firm has lost a total of four multi-million-dollar prototypes during its journey – they have all gone up in flames at the Texas testing site
The next Starship prototype, SN9, was moved to the launch site on December 22 and could perform a flight test within a few weeks.
Musk says he has SN9 and SN10 ready to go as they were developed in parallel to SN8 and follow a theme of ‘building successive generations of prototypes’ rapidly so they y can test and iterate quickly.
‘SN8’s flight test is an exciting next step in the development of a fully reusable transportation system capable of carrying both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond,’ SpaceX wrote.
‘As we venture into new territory, we continue to appreciate all of the support and encouragement we have received.’
Although many may see SN8 as a failure, this is not the first prototype SpaceX has exploded for experimental purposes or even by pure accident.
The firm has lost a total of four prototypes during its journey – they have all gone up in flames at the Texas testing site.
WHAT IS ELON MUSK’S ‘BFR’?
The BFR (Big F***ing Rocket), now known as Starship, will complete all missions and is smaller than the ones Musk announced in 2016.
The SpaceX CEO said the rocket would take its first trip to the red planet in 2022, carrying only cargo, followed by a manned mission in 2024 and claimed other SpaceX’s products would be ‘cannibalised’ to pay for it.
The rocket would be partially reusable and capable of flight directly from Earth to Mars.
Once built, Musk believes the rocket could be used for travel on Earth – saying that passengers would be able to get anywhere in under an hour.