back to article The Starship has landed. Latest SpaceX test comes back to Earth without igniting fireballs

SpaceX’s latest test of its Starship vehicle has stuck its landing for the first time. On Wednesday, US time, Starship serial number 15 (SN15) ascended to 10,000 metres, turned off its three raptor engines, and then belly-flopped back toward Earth. The belly-flop phase of the flight was intentional: the craft has four flaps …

  1. don't you hate it when you lose your account Silver badge

    Never get tiered

    Of seeing these landings. But did really enjoy the big blowy up ones :)

    1. HildyJ Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Never get tiered

      I admit, I do love explosions. But successes are even better.

      One note on the lede: "There was just a little fire. But not enough to worry anybody". If Elon expects to carry space tourists he's going to have to do something about this. A pilot using the words 'fire' and 'normal' in the same sentence is going to give passengers a pause.

  2. A Non e-mouse Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Previous test flights of the Starship have had little problem going up, but lots of trouble coming down

    Technically, they had no problems in coming down. The problem was stopping coming down.

    Icon 'cause that's what happens when you can't stop a rocket coming down.

    1. hammarbtyp

      "I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London"

      - Wernher von Braun

      1. Roger Kynaston Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Wunce the rockets are up who cares where they come down. That's not my department!

        (Credit to Tom Lehrer)

        1. slimshady76
          Alert

          The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology likes this comment.

    2. Trigonoceps occipitalis Silver badge

      When flying try to stay in the air. In particular, avoid the bottom of the air.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    That is like when people tell me they are afraid of flying. Why are you are afraid, I ask. Not flying is the problem.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      I'm not flying now, and I'm fine. The problem is the sudden stop, in the transition from one state to the other.

      Unless you can perfect the art of throwing yourself at the ground, and missing.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        That's paragliding, mostly...

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          now we know arthur and fenchurch's secret

      2. HammerOn1024

        Yes but!

        Do you have your towel?

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Yes but!

          Everyone should know where their towel is.

    2. macjules Silver badge

      To quote Rincewind, “It’s not heights that I am afraid of. It’s the ground that kills you.”

    3. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Some people can find the motion caused by clear air turbulence while flying quite distressing.

  4. Flak
    Go

    Thunderbirds are go!

    The Starship design looks like it comes straight from the Thunderbirds.

    Who knew they were so close to reality!

    It is difficult to fully fathom the scale of the Starship. Looking forward to seeing it deliver some payload soon.

    1. Mishak

      Re: Thunderbirds are go!

      Elon is aiming for an orbital flight in July with SN20 / BN3. That may be a little optimistic, but it won't be long now.

    2. Aladdin Sane

      Re: Thunderbirds are go!

      I always have the Thunderbirds March in my head when watching them land.

    3. Vulch

      Re: Thunderbirds are go!

      Definitely Gerry Anderson, but more the Fireball XL5 look.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Thunderbirds are go!

      "The Starship design looks like it comes straight from the Thunderbirds."

      Agreed, someone really needs to get him an old "mobile lounge" from Washington Dulles airport for transporting the crew to the Starship. They look like they were designed by Gerry Anderson too.

    5. MJI Silver badge

      Re: Thunderbirds are go!

      I think he must have spent his youth watching quality TV.

      Brilliant programmes

    6. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Re: Thunderbirds are go!

      Now I was thinking more like Tintin (Herge's adventures of) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destination_Moon_(comics)) , or possibly Wallace and Gromit in 'A Grand Day Out' (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kb0ooQKbflM)

      But Thunderbirds is pretty good (Virgil was my favourite).

  5. Elledan Silver badge

    Coming in high

    Based on the chatter among the tank watchers so far, it appears that the landing flip was begun a bit earlier than before, presumably to give the craft more time to iron out any issues. Even so, it landed right on the edge of the landing pad. Any closer to the edge and it might have toppled over.

    Still, this landing shows that SpaceX wasn't exaggerating SN15's new & improved features which warranted scrapping SN12 through SN14. The entire flight from what we could see (mostly hear) was controlled and the landing flip & burn was textbook. It relighting its three engines without sputtering or flaming out and then for the first time landing with two engines active all the way down for the slowest landing yet.

    In the case of SN10, it nearly made it as well, but one of the engines failed to re-ignite, causing the craft to come in too hard and too fast, which ultimately damaged and ruptured internal structures, causing the ground-based RUD. After the low header tank pressure issues of SN8 (with engine-rich burn as a result), the re-ignition issues of SN9 (fail and swinging through the landing flip), the re-ignition issues of SN10 and the explosive turbo pump failure of SN11 (Starships In The Fog), I think that the SpaceX engineers had a fairly good idea of all that could go wrong.

    So for the low-low price of four full-scale prototypes, they got a lot of crucial information that allowed them to fix issues in the Raptor engines and the Starship prototype as well.

    Fail early, fail fast, then clear the debris field and try again. It's not crazy if it works, and you're based in a county which is more than happy to allow you to mess around like that :)

    1. 42656e4d203239
      Pint

      Re: Coming in high

      >>Fail early, fail fast, then clear the debris field and try again.

      Many SpaceX/Musk haters conveniently forget that these hops are testing of development prototypes not testing of the final product and, as such, the fail to land isn't a hard fail - it provides useful live model experience/data to modify future prototypes (as indeed happened, hence scrapping SN12-14).

      I guess the SpaceX competitors run old school, non iterative, design methods, with varying degrees of success.

      Beer for all the SpaceX rocket scientists and engineers for all their hard work - now they just have to iron out the wrinkles.

      1. awavey
        Pint

        Re: Coming in high

        The whole flight seemed to be shorter in length,but the cloud layer and the glitchy onboard video made it difficult to see when the flip happened to compare with previous flights.

        And it was fairly windy at ground level 18-22knots, I'm not surprised the targeting was a bit off but how insane is this stuff that the general publics/media reaction to something roughly the height of Nelson's column,or 4 london double decker buses stacked on top of each other to use El Regs standard sizes, launches as a rocket 10km up in the air and then successfully lands relocated to a landing pad is led by well it didnt blow up.

        Are we so used to something like this tech now which for decades was pure science fiction,that it doesnt even excite people when it works.

        What on earth are they going to make of it when NASA launches their SLS and the thing just falls in the Indian Ocean taking 4 hugely expensive and historic rocket motors with it.

        1. DaveFlagAndTenDigits

          Re: Coming in high

          From what I saw, the flip happened about 20 to 30 seconds earlier just before 4 minutes - previous flights had all flipped at 4:20, which was an obvious bit of trolling by SpaceX.

          1. Reg Reader 1

            Re: Coming in high

            4:20 makes sense as those did go quite high, too

        2. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Coming in high

          The whole flight seemed to be shorter in length,but the cloud layer and the glitchy onboard video made it difficult to see when the flip happened to compare with previous flights.

          I think duration was about the same, the main difference seemed to be the landing burn seemed longer. Which seems sensible given previous attempts had a very rapid flip-burn-explode sequence. Also interesting to note that it landed on it's legs, and they didn't seem to crumple much. That would seem to indicate a much softer landing. Previous attempt that almost made it ended up on it's skirts.

          Are we so used to something like this tech now which for decades was pure science fiction,that it doesnt even excite people when it works.

          What on earth are they going to make of it when NASA launches their SLS and the thing just falls in the Indian Ocean taking 4 hugely expensive and historic rocket motors with it.

          That's a big assumption, and maybe highlights the different approaches. SpaceX seems happy to produce scrap, SLS is presumably working on the principle that it won't fail. If it does, it'll be rather embarrassing, but it's using less novel stuff than Starship.

          But I also think a fair amount of cynicism comes from hype vs reality, especially after watching the launch yesterday. So yes, they nailed the landing. But presumably a longer landing burn means more fuel reserved for that landing, which means less payload. Ok, there's potentially a lot of payload capacity, but that part's pretty much unproven.

          Some interesting comments from the stream though. Like wondering if NASA would allow the demonstration flight to be one-way. The contract is to send 4 astronauts to the Moon and return them, so take a wild guess on that one. But a long way to go before that happens. So the challenge of getting stuff from waay up in the nosecone to the regolith. Artists impressions show a cargo lift, but that isn't reality. It would also be rather inconvenient if that lift failed. Or the regolith wasn't stable. Or the Starship lands on it's skirts. Musk has previously tweeted about not needing a lunar flame pit, but that might be optimistic.

          There's also much to do before getting into orbit and landing with a simulated payload, which will alter the balance and may make the flip & land harder. Or the idea of tanker flights, a mini-space station and a ferry Starship between Moon and station. If that ferry's expected to land and take off from the Moon.. How do you service it? The proposed station is smaller than the ISS, and the Moon's harsh on parts due to it's highly abrasive dust.

          But still fascinating to watch. I kinda wonder if it'd be better to use Starships as cargo vehicles and get them horizontal on the Moon. Then possibly use them to build a lunar base. The stream talked about Starships having a crew capacity of 100, or more for sub-orbital flights, but life support for 100 takes a lot of resources, and an early lunar outpost may only need <8 crew per flight. I'm thinking it'd probably be better to have cargo flights, and smaller vehicles for the ferry missions.

          Interesting times though

          1. iron Silver badge

            Re: Coming in high

            > Like wondering if NASA would allow the demonstration flight to be one-way. The contract is to send 4 astronauts to the Moon and return them, so take a wild guess on that one.

            Try reading that contract. There is to be an unmanned demo flight bfore the manned expedition. Also the current plan is for SpaceX to land 4 astronaughts on the moon and return them to orbit, sending and returning them to Earth will be accomplished by SLS.

            1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

              Re: Coming in high

              Try reading that contract. There is to be an unmanned demo flight bfore the manned expedition.

              Yup, but the streamers were speculating a one-way lunar landing might be permitted. Which as you say, isn't what the contract (or astronauts) expects. But that also requires automated cargo handling, and leaving useful cargo on the Moon would be handy.

              The rest just seems a bit convoluted, ie having a <100 tonne vehicle ferrying 4 crew at a time, and smacks of finding something for SLS to do, rather than alternative and perhaps more practical approaches.

          2. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Coming in high

            I suspect that once they sort the landings, burn times will get shorter again

            Landing sucessful. RUD postponed

            1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

              Re: Coming in high

              I suspect that once they sort the landings, burn times will get shorter again

              Seems safer to leave it at a long burn. But next interesting step may be to repeat it a few times with increasing simulated payloads/ballast.

          3. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

            Re: Regolith eating raptors

            The Blue complaint had something about raptors tearing up the regolith, putting bits of it in orbit and those bits coming back and hitting Starships or astronauts. That was a valid complaint about the earliest concepts. The current plan is that the raptors shut down before the Starship gets too close to the moon and the final descent it handled hot gas thrusters firing diagonally from above the tanks. The return trip starts with thrusters and switches to raptors when high enough. The top of the tanks is high up on current Starships and expected to be even higher on HLS so there will be enough propellant to go from LEO to the Moon and back to NRHO with a full load of propellant.

            The little legs on current Starships are a temporary solution. HLS Starships will have big legs and wide feet. There are cargo missions planned with other landers that will reach the Moon before Starship. One of these could survey a proposed landing site.

            The long drop from the crew habitats to the surface is a valid concern. Starship has lots of mass margin so there is room for multiple redundant solutions. The good news is that NASA cannot use Starship's full return cargo capacity. They can only bring back what will fit between the astronauts in an Orion capsule.

            Congress requires NASA astronauts to go to the moon in an Orion capsule launched on an SLS rocket and return to Earth in that capsule. This places other limits on the missions: Only one mission per year as that is the maximum rate SLS can be manufactured. SLS can only get Orion to NRHO. Before NASA had a ride to the moon there was a plan to put a space station (LOP-G) there so that Orion+SLS would have somewhere to go. The 2024 deadline means that LOP-G will not be there in time.

            NRHO is not that far from low lunar orbit. The propellant for the return portion of that trip is not that bad either. Bringing that propellant from the surface of the Moon to LLO requires lots more propellant. Bringing lots of propellent from LLO to the moon requires a huge amount of propellant. Dynetics almost solved this with a clever design with extra propellant tanks that get dropped shortly before landing. Blue solved this by breaking the LOP-G to the moon and back ride into three parts that get delivered to NHRO separately and assembled by crew at LOP-G (and disassembled on the moon!). SpaceX solved it with a really big Starship. Just imagine crew getting out of their cramped Orion into a small LOP-G and living there until it is time to leave for the moon in a huge luxury Starship bigger than the ISS.

            Once Starship has done its return trip to the Moon there is then the question of what to do with it. Going to an Earth-centred elliptical orbit is quite cheap. Aerobraking to LEO in one go melts HLS starship. Getting there with multiple small aerobrakes means that the electronics get fried in one of the many trips through the radiation belts. Burning propellant to get to LEO requires a large amount of propellant. It is hard to match orbits in an elliptical orbit so a tanker cannot sensibly meet a returning starship there, but a tanker could go to NRHO, deliver enough propellant for a round trip to the Moon and get back to Earth with its heat shield and flaps. HLS Starship has an endurance of only 100 days so it cannot wait for another Orion. NASA will hire another starship. If only there were some other human rated ride to NRHO.

            Servicing HLS Starships for multiple trips is tricky. Time to build Moon Base Alpha.

            The balance of a crew/cargo/tanker Starship returning to Earth is a problem. Without doing something clever most of the mass is at the base. The lower flaps would have to be huge and stick right out. The upper flaps would have to be small and mostly folded up leaving little margin to control descent. The solution is to put the small tanks for landing propellant high up in the vehicle. The small oxygen tank goes right at the top.

            1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

              Re: Regolith eating raptors

              The little legs on current Starships are a temporary solution. HLS Starships will have big legs and wide feet. There are cargo missions planned with other landers that will reach the Moon before Starship. One of these could survey a proposed landing site.

              Pfft.. One (or more) should be carrying a lunarcrete batch plant so when humans land on the Moon, they can start being highly skilled brickies. But given the theoretical payload of Staships, there's all sorts of possibilities. Like carrying multiple surveyors, sections of (or becoming) Moonbase Alpha.

              The long drop from the crew habitats to the surface is a valid concern. Starship has lots of mass margin so there is room for multiple redundant solutions. The good news is that NASA cannot use Starship's full return cargo capacity. They can only bring back what will fit between the astronauts in an Orion capsule

              I think that's a good news/bad news thing. But also challenges for the future, ie SN42 onwards may have to have lunar landing braking thrusters and legs, cargo hatch(es) and lifts, long rope ladders etc etc. Lack of return capacity is more of a science thing I guess, ie capacity for samples or science experiments. But I guess there's also potential to launch a Starship carrying multiple cargo return pods.

              Once Starship has done its return trip to the Moon there is then the question of what to do with it.

              A multiple choice question.. But I like the idea of a ferry ship. Radiation risks could be mitigated with shielding, much of the other stuff I think really needs a bigger LEO transfer station. That should make tasks like refuelling and maintenance easier. Once a ferry's deemed EOL or obsoleted, it could be recycled to expand the transfer station, expand the lunar base and/or the Raptor vacuum engines assembled into a Really BFR. Next stop, Mars! Or beyond..

              Servicing HLS Starships for multiple trips is tricky. Time to build Moon Base Alpha.

              Indeed. Curious about the pros and cons of a lunar vs orbital service centre. There'd presumably be a need for lunar servicing in case there's a problem with the landing.

              It's strange though that what was once a government project has now become private.. Between Musk, Bezos, Gates, Branson and various other multi-billionaires, they have the resources to pretty much ignore NASA and JFDI. Would be neat if there was a meeting of minds, resources and IP to create a cargo & crew system to build a space station, lunar base, and then on to Mars.

          4. ChrisC Silver badge

            Re: Coming in high

            >> What on earth are they going to make of it when NASA launches their SLS and the thing just falls in the Indian Ocean taking 4 hugely expensive and historic rocket motors with it.

            > That's a big assumption, and maybe highlights the different approaches. SpaceX seems happy to produce scrap, SLS is presumably working on the principle that it won't fail. If it does, it'll be rather embarrassing, but it's using less novel stuff than Starship.

            I may have misunderstood what awavey's comment was actually about, but it seemed like they were making the point that, with the public now somewhat attuned to the idea that rocket first stages can deliver themselves back to earth in one piece for easy reuse, seeing the SLS first stage unceremoniously dumping itself into the briny by design might come as a bit of a shock.

            So to me it didn't feel in any way like a suggestion that the first SLS launch would fail to go as planned, merely that it'd be a reminder that what SpaceX have achieved with Falcon recovery and reuse is still anything but routine, and that your average 21st century rocket launch will always end up with most of the launch vehicle reduced to scrap, regardless of how well or otherwise the launch goes.

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Coming in high

      Some people have made a big fuss about SpaceX finally starting the flip at a higher altitude. If they had done this before all it would have achieved would be to have most of the prototypes perform an even more overly ambitious lithobraking manoeuvre. The only exception would have been number 11: the RUD would have been at a higher altitude.

      For a fair comparison to SLS we need Starships to try to come back from orbit. So far 18 SLS upper stages have gone into orbit (on Delta IVs) but none have returned.

    3. JDPower666

      Re: Coming in high

      A few mistakes in there. It didn't relight earlier, just seemed that way because the landing phase was slower/longer.

      SN12-14 weren't scrapped because SN15 was such an improvement, they were scrapped after the first high altitude test (SN8) because it went so well they thought it would be a simple fix so later versions wouldn't be needed.

      It didn't relight all three engines then kill one, only two lit. In fact it seems the two that did light were not the optimal two for flipping/control (hence nearly missing the pad). If that is the case they STILL have issues relighting engines, despite their redesign. But at least they have an intact craft and engine to examine the cause more fully.

  6. Gotno iShit Wantno iShit

    A pedant notes...

    Also on Wednesday, SpaceX landed a Falcon 9 rocket that it has now reused nine times

    According to Wikinaccurate the booster used on Wednesday has flown 9 times so it's 'only' been reused 8.

    1. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

      Re: A pedant notes...

      I think "used 9 times" would cover it.

      1. Spherical Cow Silver badge

        Re: A pedant notes...

        The point is SpaceX have proved they can re-use the same launcher many many* times which is awesome.

        *counting in Troll. Anyone for a game of Thud?

    2. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Re: A pedant notes...

      What would be interesting to know is how many successful Raptor launches there have been - i.e. how many total Raptor uses have there been. It must be in the 100s by now - a tried and tested engine.

      1. FeepingCreature

        Re: A pedant notes...

        Not even close. Starhopper 1x2, SN5 1x, SN6 1x, SN8 3x, SN9 3x, SN10 3x and now SN15 3x. So there have been 16 Raptor-Flights.

  7. werdsmith Silver badge

    How fast the nozzles move on their gimbals whilst providing so much thrust is really quite amazing. Or maybe it's just me.

  8. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

    Their definition of "small fire" is slightly different from mine. I think that fire would have engulfed our house.

    Very happy though that things are moving along!

    The confidence of landing so near to the next one on the (literal) production line!

    1. awavey

      Yep that was a huge fire, those fins for scale are as tall if not taller than most peoples houses, so that's a whole building on fire sized fire they had. But they got it under control,probably just a propellant leak from a pipe somewhere that they can fix easily enough.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        The correct desciption is "there's a fire - its smaller than last time".

        In future it will just be "Starship has landed, the fire at the base is nominal"

        1. FeepingCreature

          Mind the inferno!

    2. JDPower666

      They didn't land near to the next one. The next one is in the hangar still. The one on the pad is just a nose cone test rig.

  9. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

    Someone programmed the initial upward pan of that main camera rather over-optimistically – a trigonometric miscalculation perhaps? I guess that's why they're on the camera team and not the design team (I hope)...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It's so you don't see the switch from live launch video to the CGI "flight" as they test modern video technology ready for the moon/mars/studio "landing"

  10. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    just a small methane fire

    "Just one wafer thin mint"

  11. Juanguanomo
    Gimp

    udp://

    Now I'm curious to see what happens if I point VLC at that URL in the video next time they launch something.

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: udp://

      I was going to say "not much" but then took a closer look.

      I'm betting most ISPs don't support multicast to endusers though

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: udp://

        I'm betting most ISPs don't support multicast to endusers though

        I don't think any do. Even IPv6 wouldn't help.

        To make it work you'd need too many available multicast IP addresses and the net blocks are simply too small to make it work outside of a small network, unless you get really really creative with the routers.

  12. Sandstone

    Probabilities

    So you have a 20% chance of surviving a landing.

  13. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Schroedingers video

    If the video allows you to observe the whole launch and landing you collapse the wave goodbye function!

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