Starship SN9, SpaceX's early prototype for a rocket the company hopes will carry the first humans to Mars, launched a high-altitude test flight Tuesday that saw the vehicle travel a few miles up in the air, hover for a moment, and then conduct a belly flop-like maneuver on descent before making an explosive landing back on the launch pad.
The rocket's three engines ignited, turned off, and then re-ignited for the landing as planned, however the rocket burst into a fireball when it returned to the launch pad. It was not immediately clear what went wrong.
SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said on the company's livestream of the event that much of the test flight "looked to be very good," and engineers were able to gather data to help improve the Starship design throughout the flight, which reached about 10 km, or six miles, high.
"We demonstrated the ability to transition the engines to the landing propellant tanks, the subsonic reentry looked very good and stable," Insprucker said. "We've just got to work on that landing a little bit."
The test launch comes after the 160-foot tall rocket prototype had been stranded on its launchpad in the Texas over the weekend. It was poised to take off for the test launch last week, but it stayed grounded because SpaceX violated a public safety agreement it had with federal regulators during a previous test launch, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Last Thursday, With Starship SN9 fueled and able to launch at any momen
t, the FAA sent out a surprising advisory that said the launch had been scrubbed.
The FAA, which oversees US airspace as well as licenses rocket launches, ordered SpaceX to halt operations at its testing facilities in South Texas "that could affect public safety," the agency said. After previously declining to comment on its investigation, which was first reported by The Verge, the FAA said Tuesday that it concluded this week that SpaceX took "corrective action" and is now complying with public safety rules. The agency did not disclose the nature of the public safety issue or what corrective action was undertaken.
The FAA reinstated SpaceX's authorization to launch its rocket prototypes late Monday, according to a statement from the agency.
The company did not respond to requests for comment for this story, nor has it responded to requests for comment in more than eight months.
At the root of the rift between SpaceX and the FAA was a test launch SpaceX carried out in December of a prototype known as Starship SN8, one in a series of early prototypes the company has built in its efforts to design a rocket capable of ferrying the first humans to Mars. Prior to that launch, SpaceX had "sought a waiver to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations," according to the FAA, but the agency denied that request.
But SpaceX proceeded with the test launch anyway, and launched the vehicle on a high-altitude "hop test" that saw it successfully reach its desired altitude and conduct a series of in-air acrobatics before it explosively crash landed back at its launch site.
It is not clear if the FAA would have investigated the company regardless of whether SN8 landed successfully.
The FAA was already focused on reconfiguring its launch licensing process to make it more "streamlined." But it's not clear if the updated procedures, which are expected to go into effect in the near future, would have helped SpaceX quickly obtain authorization to loosen the public safety restrictions on its launch license.
SpaceX already had yet another Starship prototype, SN10, assembled. It's not clear when the company will attempt to launch it, but over the weekend, the company rolled the vehicle out a launch pad adjacent to where the SN9 took off.