Prototypes of the upper stage of the SpaceX Starship have been flown nine times.[a][1][2][3][4][5] Designed and operated by private manufacturer SpaceX, the flown prototypes of Starship so far are Starhopper, SN5, SN6, SN8, SN9, SN10, SN11, and SN15.[6][7]

Starship is planned to be a fully-reusable two-stage super heavy-lift launch vehicle.[8] Unusual for previous launch vehicle and spacecraft designs, the upper stage of Starship is intended to function both as a second stage to reach orbital velocity on launches from Earth, and also eventually[9] be used in outer space as an on-orbit long-duration spacecraft. It is being designed to take people to Mars and beyond into the Solar System.[10]

Prototypes

Low-altitude flights

Short steel rocket with its fins touching the ground
Starhopper under construction, March 2019
Crane hooking onto a steel vessel body
A crane lifting Starship SN5, August 2020

The first prototype to fly using a Raptor engine was called Starhopper.[11] The vehicle had three non-retractable legs and was shorter than the final spacecraft design.[12] The craft performed two tethered hops in early April 2019 and three months later, it hopped without a tether to around 25 m (80 ft).[13] In August 2019, the vehicle hopped to 150 m (500 ft) and traveled to a landing pad nearby.[14] As of August 2021, the vehicle has been retired and repurposed; it is now a mounting point for communication, weather monitoring and tracking equipment, and becoming a water tank.[15]

In late September 2019, Musk presented more details about the lower-stage booster, the upper stage's method of controlling its descent, its heat shield, orbital refueling capacity, and potential destinations outside of Mars.[16] The number of aft flaps on the spacecraft was reduced from three to two, and Starship's body material was changed from carbon composites to stainless steel, due to lower cost, higher melting point, strength at cryogenic temperature, and ease of manufacturing.[17]

SpaceX was already constructing the first full-size Starship Mk1 and Mk2 upper-stage prototypes before the presentation. They were located at the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, and Cocoa, Florida, respectively.[16] Neither prototype flew, as Mk1 was destroyed November 2019 during a pressure stress test and Mk2's Florida facility was abandoned and deconstructed throughout 2020.[18][19] After the Mk prototypes, SpaceX began naming its new Starship upper-stage prototypes with the prefix "SN", short for "serial number".[20] No prototypes between SN1 and SN4 flew either, as SN1 and SN3 collapsed during pressure stress tests and SN4 exploded after its fifth engine firing.[15] In January 2020, the company bought two drilling rigs for $3.5 million from Valaris plc each during Valaris's bankruptcy proceedings, with plans to repurpose them as offshore spaceports.[21]

In June 2020, SpaceX started construction of a launch pad for orbit-capable Starship rockets.[22] Starship SN5 was built with no flaps or nose cone, giving it a cylindrical shape. The test vehicle consisted of one Raptor engine, propellant tanks, and a mass simulator. On 5 August 2020, SN5 performed a 150 m (500 ft)-high flight, successfully landing on a nearby pad.[23] On 3 September 2020, the similar-looking Starship SN6 successfully repeated the hop.[24] A week later, SpaceX stress-tested SN7.1 fuel tank, which was constructed from SAE 304L stainless steel rather than SAE 301 by earlier tanks.[15] In the same September, the company fired its Raptor Vacuum engine in full duration.[25]

High-altitude flights

Starship SN9 on a mount with its flaps closed, January 2021
Starship SN9 on a mount with its flaps closed, January 2021

SN8 was the first fully complete Starship upper stage prototype. Before its flight, it underwent four static fire tests between October and November 2020.[15] On 9 December 2020, SN8 flew, slowly turning off its three engines one by one, and reaching to an altitude of 12.5 km (7.8 mi). The craft then performed the belly-flop maneuver and dove back through the atmosphere. Low methane header tank pressure during the prototype's landing attempt caused its engines to underperform, which led to a hard impact with the landing pad.[26] Because SpaceX had violated its launch license and ignored warnings of worsening shock wave damage, the Federal Aviation Administration performed a two-month investigation of the incident.[27] On 2 February 2021, Starship SN9 launched to 10 km (6.2 mi) in altitude and performed the belly-flop maneuver similar to SN8. The prototype crashed upon landing as a result of one of its engines failing to properly ignite.[28] Unlike the last test flight, the explosion is within the Federal Aviation Administration's safety bounds.[29]

A month later, on 3 March 2021, after an initially aborted launch three hours earlier, Starship SN10 launched on the same flight path as its two predecessors. The vehicle then landed hard and crushed its landing legs, leaning to one side,[30] and a fire was seen at the vehicle's base. Less than ten minutes later,[31] it exploded, probably due to a propellant tank rupture.[30] A few weeks later on 30 March 2021, Starship SN11 flew into thick fog along the same flight path.[32] About twenty-five seconds after lift-off, fire could be spotted at an engine, though it did not impact the ascent.[33] During descent, the vehicle exploded, scattering debris up to 8 km (5 mi) away.[32] It was suspected that a methane leak damaged the vehicle's avionics, causing excess propellant in a Raptor's methane turbopump, leading to the vehicle's explosion.[33]

In March 2021, the company sent a public construction plan that had two sub-orbital launch pads, two orbital launch pads, two landing pads, two test stands, and a large propellant tank farm. In the same month, the company proposed developing the surrounding Boca Chica village into a company town named Starbase,[34] raising concerns about SpaceX's authority, power, and potential abuse for eviction.[35] In early April 2021, the orbital launch pad's fuel storage tanks began mounting.[22] A few weeks later, on 16 April 2021, NASA selected Starship HLS as the crewed lunar lander.[36] Blue Origin, a bidding competitor to SpaceX, disputed the decision and began a legal case in August 2021,[37] and it was later dismissed by the Court of Federal Claims three months later.[38]

Starship prototypes SN12, SN13, and SN14 were scrapped before completion, and Starship SN15 was selected to fly instead.[39] The prototype features general improvement on its avionics, structure, and engines, learning from the failures of prior prototypes.[31] On 5 May 2021, SN15 launched, completed the same maneuvers as older prototypes, and landed softly[39] after six minutes. Even though SN15 had a small fire in the engine area after landing, like SN10, it was extinguished, completing the first successful high-altitude test.[31] Further prototypes such as Starship SN16 were built, but plans for flying them were abandoned.[40]

Planned orbital launches

From left to right: Booster 4, Ship 15, Ship 22, and Ship 20 displayed at Starbase, June 2022
From left to right: Booster 4, Ship 15, Ship 22, and Ship 20 displayed at Starbase, June 2022

In July 2021, Super Heavy BN3 conducted its first full-duration static firing, lighting three engines.[41] Around this time, SpaceX changed their naming scheme from "SN" to "Ship" for Starship crafts,[40] and from "BN" to "Booster" for Super Heavy boosters.[42] A month later, using cranes, Ship 20 was stacked atop Booster 4 for the first time. Ship 20 was the first to include a body-tall heat shield, made of standardized hexagonal heat tiles.[43] In October 2021, the catching mechanical arms were installed onto the integration tower, and the first tank farm's construction was completed.[22] Two weeks later, NASA and SpaceX announced their plans to construct Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 49.[44]

At the start of 2022, the Raptor 2 engine was first spotted by the public. Raptor 2 is intended to be an upgrade to the original engine with a much more simplified design, decrease in mass, widening of the throat, and increase in main combustion chamber pressure from 250 bar (3,600 psi) to 300 bar (4,400 psi). This lead to an increase in thrust from 1.85 MN (420,000 lbf) to 2.3 MN (520,000 lbf), with a 3 seconds of specific impulse decrease trade off.[45] In February 2022, after stacking Ship 20 on top of Booster 4 using mechanical arms,[46] Elon Musk gave a presentation on Starship development at Starbase; he updated progress on Raptor 2 production, mentioned a possible move to the Florida facility, and confirmed many technical information speculations.[47]

In June 2022, the Federal Aviation Administration determined that Starbase did not need a full environmental impact assessment, though the company must address issues outlined in the final assessment document.[48] One month later on 11 July 2022, Booster 7 tested spinning the liquid oxygen turbopumps on all of its thirty-three Raptor engines, referred to as a spin prime test. The test resulted in a violent explosion at the prototype's base, though the prototype's body remains somewhat intact.[49] As of July 2022, Booster 7 is expected to pair up with Ship 24 for the first orbital flight.[50]

Although SpaceX has not received an orbital launch license as of 13 June 2022,[51] the company had described the planned trajectory in a report sent to the Federal Communications Commission. During the orbital test flight, the rocket is planned to launch from Starbase, after which the Super Heavy booster will separate and perform a soft water landing around 30 km (20 mi) from the Texas shoreline. The spacecraft will continue flying with its ground track passing through the Straits of Florida and then softly land in the Pacific Ocean around 100 km (60 mi) northwest of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. The spaceflight will last ninety minutes.[52]: 2–4 

Starship test flights

Further information: Starship development history § Starship prototypes

Eight prototype Starship second stage vehicles, each with different vehicle configurations, have flown nine suborbital test flights in the period between July 2019 and May 2021.

SpaceX testing is proprietary, and the company does not release a detailed set of test objectives for their vehicle development test flights. All test flights have been launched from the Starbase launch site at Boca Chica in southern Texas.[53]

By August 2021, the iterative development work at the South Texas facility had become focused on the first orbital test flight of the two-stage Starship system.[54]

Starship second-stage sub-orbital flights

Flight
No.
Date and time
(UTC)
Vehicle Launch site[b] Flight apogee Duration
- 3 April 2019 Starhopper Launch site, Boca Chica, Texas <0.3 m (1 ft) ~3 seconds
The first firing of Starhopper and the first tethered hop (according to Musk[55][56]). The burn was a few seconds in duration and the vehicle was tethered to the ground. The vehicle might have lifted off the ground, but only to a very small height, and it was not possible to see the lift off in public video recordings of the test.[56][57]
- 5 April 2019 Starhopper Launch site, Boca Chica, Texas 1 m (3.3 ft) ~5 seconds
Tethered hop which hit tether limits. Used a single Raptor SN2 engine.[1]
1 25 July 2019[58] Starhopper Launch site, Boca Chica, Texas 20 m (65.6 ft)[2] ~22 seconds
First free (untethered) flight test. Single Raptor engine, SN6.
2 27 August 2019 22:00[3][59] Starhopper Launch site, Boca Chica, Texas 150 m (492 ft)[3] ~1 minute[60]
Single Raptor engine, SN6. Starhopper was retired after this launch and used as a water tank at the production site.[3][61][62]
3 4 August 2020 23:57[63][64] Starship SN5 Suborbital Pad A, Boca Chica, Texas 150 m (492 ft)[63] ~45 seconds
Used a single Raptor engine, SN27.[65] Second 150-meter hop, and first hop of a full Starship prototype.[4]
4 3 September 2020 17:47[66] Starship SN6 Suborbital Pad A, Boca Chica, Texas 150 m (492 ft)[67] ~45 seconds
Used a single Raptor engine, SN29. Third 150-meter hop, and second hop of a full Starship prototype.[66]
5 9 December 2020[68] 22:45 Starship SN8 Suborbital Pad A, Boca Chica, Texas 12.5 km (41,000 ft)[69] 6 minutes, 42 seconds
Three Raptor engines, SN30, SN36, and SN42.[70] The vehicle successfully launched, ascended, performed the skydive descent maneuver, relit the engines fueled by the header tanks, and steered to the landing pad.[69] The flip maneuver from horizontal descent to vertical was successful. However, a sudden pressure loss in the methane header tank caused by the flip maneuver reduced fuel supply and thrust, resulting in a hard landing and destruction of SN8.[69]
6 2 February 2021[71] 20:25 Starship SN9 Suborbital Pad B, Boca Chica, Texas 10 km (32,800 ft)[72][71][73] 6 minutes, 26 seconds[73]
Three Raptor engines, including SN45 and SN49.[73][74][75][76] A Raptor failed to start due to a problem with its oxygen-rich preburner,[citation needed] causing SN9 to over-rotate and hit the landing pad. The vehicle was destroyed by the impact forces and explosion.
7 3 March 2021[77][78] 23:15 Starship SN10 Suborbital Pad A, Boca Chica, Texas 10 km (32,800 ft)[79] 6 minutes, 24 seconds[80][c]
SN10 experienced a non-destructive hard landing with a slight lean after the landing and a fire near the base of the rocket,[83] and then exploded eight minutes after landing.[undue weight? ][79] SN10 did not deaccelerate enough, resulting in a hard landing damaging some legs and crushing part of the skirt. The cause was probably due to partial helium ingestion from the fuel header tank.[81]
8 30 March 2021 13:00[84] Starship SN11 Suborbital Pad B, Boca Chica, Texas 10 km (32,800 ft)[85] ~6 minutes[84]
SN11 launched in heavy fog, and had engine issues during ascent (according to Elon Musk).[86] Telemetry was lost at T+5:49, shortly after one engine appeared to be ignited for the landing burn and at an estimated altitude of around 600 meters.[87] Debris were then seen falling from the sky, indicating that the vehicle had exploded just above the landing site.[88] Elon Musk stated that a "relatively small" methane leak caused a fire on one of the Raptor engines which damaged it, causing hard start attempting landing burn and destruction of SN11.[89]
9 5 May 2021 22:24[90] Starship SN15 Suborbital Pad A, Boca Chica, Texas 10 km (32,800 ft)[91] 5 minutes, 59 seconds
SN15 was a new iteration of prototype Starship with many upgrades over previous vehicles.[92] SN15 launched in overcast weather and achieved a soft landing, with a small fire starting near the base shortly after landing. The post-flight fire was out within 20 minutes, and SN15 was retired by the end of the month.[93][94]

Future operational flights

SpaceX has on various occasions made a few public statements about preliminary ideas for future operational orbital flights using the Starship system. All dates for future flights are speculative, and therefore approximate and "no earlier than" (NET) dates. Moreover, it is difficult to compare the dates in the tables since they have come from different sources and at different times over the past three years.

Elon Musk has stated that Starship would fly hundreds of times before launching with humans.[9] A likely use of some of these flights would be to launch Starlink satellites.[95]

Date Vehicle Mission Notes
NET 2022[96] Starship 24 + SuperHeavy Booster 7 Orbital Flight As of November 2021, Ship 20 was slated to be tested on the first orbital test flight, tentatively launching on top of Super Heavy Booster 4.[97] However, in March 2022, Elon Musk stated that "new prototypes will conduct the orbital flight", not the Ship 20 and Booster 4.[98] The booster will separate roughly three minutes after launch and splashdown ~30 km (19 mi) offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.[99] The ship will fly over the Florida Strait, avoiding populated land, and continue to accelerate to orbital velocity. It will then re-enter the atmosphere over the Pacific and perform a soft splashdown ~100 km (62 mi) northwest of Kauai.[100]
NET 2024 Starship Cargo Superbird-9 Superbird-9 is a SKY Perfect JSAT's fully flexible HTS (High Throughput Satellites) mounted the payload missions to be configured and combined to match end-user needs. The satellite will be based on Airbus’ standardised OneSat product line. Superbird-9 will be launched by SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle in 2024 to geosynchronous transfer orbit.[101][102]
TBD Starship Crew Third Polaris Program Flight On behalf of Jared Isaacman, last flight of planned Polaris Program and first crewed mission of Starship.[103][d]
NET 2023[104] Starship Crew dearMoon As of 2018, the dearMoon project—an aspirational plan for a flyby loop around the Moon no earlier than 2023—was announced.[105]
NET 2023-24[106] Starship Crew Unnamed As of 2022, the Dennis and Akiko Tito are the first two crewmembers announced on Starship’s second commercial spaceflight around the Moon. This will be Dennis’ second mission to space after becoming the first commercial astronaut to visit the International Space Station in 2001, and Akiko will be among the first woman to fly around the Moon on a Starship. The Titos joined the mission to contribute to SpaceX’s long-term goal to advance human spaceflight and help make life multiplanetary.

Over the course of a week, Starship and the crew will travel to the Moon, fly within 200 km of the Moon’s surface, and complete a full journey around the Moon before safely returning to Earth. Ten other seats on Starship remain unsold and are available. Tito said he was not at liberty to disclose the price he paid.[107]

NLT 2025[108] Starship HLS HLS Demo NASA demonstration mission for the Human Landing System prior to Artemis 3, announced in April 2021. Includes refueling and landing vehicles.
Starship Cargo (refueling)
NET 2025[109][110][111][112] Starship HLS Artemis 3 Human Landing System vehicle for Artemis Program. Date is dependent on many NASA Artemis program and SpaceX Starship development contingencies.
Starship Cargo (refueling)
NET 2024 Starship HLS In March 2022 NASA announced it would be exercising an option under the initial SpaceX HLS contract that would allow a second-generation Starship HLS design to conduct a Lunar Gateway-based demonstration mission after Artemis 3.[113]
NET 2024 Starship Cargo As of 2020, this was mentioned as the earliest potential cargo flight to Mars.[114]
NET 2029 Starship Crew
(Heart of Gold[115])
As of March 2022, 2029 was mentioned as the earliest potential crewed flight to Mars.[116]

Other flights

The HLS variant of Starship was selected by NASA in April 2021 to be the lander for the Artemis missions to the Moon. Artemis 3 is intended to be the first human mission to the Moon to use Starship for long-duration crewed lunar landings as part of the Artemis program.

According to space journalist Mike Wall in 2020, Musk is said to envision that eventually more than 1,000 Starships could be needed to depart for Mars every 26 months, which could lead to the development of a sustainable Martian city in 50–100 years.[117]

Notes

  1. ^ Not including tethered, short hops of Starhopper on 3 and 5 April 2019.
  2. ^ All launches are from the same Boca Chica site. SpaceX started calling this Starbase from March 2021 after discussions called a "casual inquiry". See Boca Chica (Texas) § Starbase
  3. ^ Despite making an intact landing and beginning the detanking procedures, the vehicle suffered an explosion several minutes later destroying the vehicle in the process. SpaceX called it a successful landing but later acknowledged a problem with lower-than-expected engine thrust causing a hard landing[81] way past leg loads[82] and the vehicle exploded.[78]
  4. ^ The first (Polaris Dawn) and second mission of this program will be launched with Crew Dragon.

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