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What to know about Starship and SpaceX’s first 9-mile high test flight with SN8 happening this week

SpaceX is on track to meet an exciting new milestone in Starship development this week. The team in South Texas will attempt the first high altitude test flight using a prototype version of the next-generation launch system as soon as Sunday.

The plan for Starship SN8 hardware, or Serial Number 8, is to launch, ascend 15 kilometers in the sky, and hopefully land. For perspective, SpaceX previously launched and landed its Starship SN6 prototype 150 meters high (twice). If successful, SN8 will fly 100 times further than SN6.

SN8 also looks a lot more like a finished Starship than SN6, and Space Explored will be on site in Texas this week to capture whatever happens.

What’s Starship?

SpaceX currently flies two rocket variants: Falcon 9 for most missions, including astronaut launches, and Falcon Heavy (which is a bit like a Falcon 9 rocket with two additional Falcon 9 boosters attached) for heavier payloads.

Starship is a next-generation vehicle being developed by SpaceX that will mammoth the current family of rockets in size and power. Larger vehicles like NASA’s Space Launch System and SpaceX’s Starship are required for deep space missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Starship will also be used for sending amounts of cargo to Earth orbit that would require many more launches from smaller vehicles.

Here’s how SpaceX describes Starship:

SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket (collectively referred to as Starship) 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.

While Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets fly with SpaceX Merlin engines, Starship will use new SpaceX Raptop engines:

The Raptor engine is a reusable methalox staged-combustion engine that powers the Starship launch system. Raptor engines began flight testing on the Starship prototype rockets in July 2019, becoming the first full-flow staged combustion rocket engine ever flown.

While Starship development is currently ongoing, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk called the vehicle the company’s “top priority” and accelerated the program in June 2020.

NASA also has an interest in Starship’s success, from serving as a 21st-century human landing system for Moon missions to servicing rockets and more:

Once referred to internally as BFR for Big Falcon Rocket (or the less family-friendly version of Big Freaking Rocket), SpaceX’s Starship vehicle is going to be a gigantic deal for the future of spaceflight over the next decade and beyond.

SN8 Goals

When SpaceX launched and landed Starship SN6 in August and September, both 150-meter test flights lasted about 45 seconds total. Not even Elon Musk can predict what will happen when Starship SN8 takes flight this week to 15 kilometers. (For reference, the Kármán Line that defines the beginning of space is 100 kilometers above ground.)

The SpaceX founder sets these goals for the prototype vehicle: testing three engine ascent, body flaps, and transitioning from main to header tanks and landing flip.

Will Starship SN8 actually land like SN6 after flying 100 times higher? Musk gives the prototype vehicle a one-in-three shot:

Musk adds that SpaceX already has Starship SN9 and SN10 vehicles for testing with more robust wiring, more mature engines, and a better-sealed nosecone if the flight of Starship SN8 ends badly.

SpaceX currently has three test flight attempt dates scheduled from Sunday, November 30 through Tuesday, December 2, based on local road closures. Test dates are subject to changing based on weather conditions, vehicle status, and other factors, so stay tuned to Space Explored for the latest.

Top image via SpaceX