(Update: Sunday) SpaceX’s high-altitude Starship launch debut slips to Monday

Update #2: Per new Temporary Flight Restrictions, there’s now a chance that SpaceX has rescheduled Starship’s (now slightly less) high-altitude launch debut on Sunday afternoon, December 6th.

As always with experimental testing, uncertainty remains. Stay tuned for updates as we close in on Starship SN8’s 12.5-kilometer (~7.8 mi) launch debut.

Update: SpaceX’s high-altitude Starship launch debut appears to have slipped to no earlier than (NET) Monday morning, December 7th, and been reduced from 15 km to 12.5 km.

FAA-approved flight restrictions filed on December 2nd were retracted on December 3rd for unknown reasons, ultimately giving SpaceX several more days to prepare Starship SN8 for an ambitious high-altitude launch, coast, freefall, and landing attempt.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has also lowered Starship SN8’s apogee target to 12.5 km (7.8 mi) from 15 km, itself a reduction from 20 km made earlier this year. Why is entirely unclear but it’s likely that the company is in active discussion (and probably arguments) with the FAA, perhaps requiring a compromise to ensure regulatory approval.

It remains to be seen if SpaceX will perform any additional testing over the weekend or if the company will attempt to schedule Starship SN8’s launch debut on Saturday or Sunday. Stay tuned for updates and Elon Musk’s promised SpaceX webcast.

A panorama of SpaceX’s two suborbital pads, its orbital launch mount (behind the tent at left), and Starship SN8. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX has received FAA approval to attempt Starship’s high-altitude launch debut as early as Friday according to a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) filed on December 2nd.

SpaceX’s first high-altitude Starship TFR revealed that the crucial flight test is now scheduled sometime between 8 am and 5 pm CST (14:00-23:00 UTC) on Friday, December 4th, with identical backup windows available (and cleared with the FAA) on Saturday and Sunday. Originally scheduled as early as November 30th, the delays are less than surprising given the complexity and unprecedented nature of the flight test facing SpaceX.

Starship serial/ship number 8 (SN8) – the first functional full-height prototype – is tasked with launching from Boca Chica, Texas to an apogee of 15 kilometers (~9.5 miles) and dropping back to Earth to test an unproven approach to rocket recovery.

Often referred to as a bellyflop or skydiver-style attitude, Starship SN8 will attempt to freefall belly-down back to earth, using four large flaps to maintain a stable approach much like skydivers use their arms and legs to control heading and speed. When landing on planets or moons with relatively thick atmospheres, a controlled freefall could save Starship a huge amount of structural mass (no need for wings or actual airfoils) and propellant – a major benefit for what aims to be the largest reusable orbital spacecraft ever built.

Starship SN8 is pictured beside Starhopper on November 3rd. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Three Raptors are installed within Starship SN8’s enclosed skirt section. (Elon Musk)

Powered by three Raptor engines capable of producing up to 600 metric tons (1.3 million lbf) of thrust at full throttle, SN8’s launch debut will mark Starship’s first multiengine flight – a major milestone for any rocket prototype. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also recently noted that Starship SN8’s propellant tanks will only be “slightly filled” for its 15 km launch debut, potentially resulting in an extremely healthy thrust to weight ratio at liftoff.

Based on several unofficial estimates, Starship SN8 is also likely to break the sound barrier on ascent, potentially putting the prototype through conditions similar to what an actual orbital launch might see at Max Q (the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure). Further adding to the daunting list of ‘firsts’, SN8’s 15 km debut will be the first Starship hop or flight with a nosecone, making it the first full-scale structural test of a nose section and the methods used to attach it to Starship’s tank section. It’s hard to exaggerate the number of things that could go wrong and the number of ways Starship SN8 could fail during its first flight.

In the interim, SpaceX has taken Starship’s launch delay as an opportunity to perform some kind of additional testing on the evening of December 2nd, involving some kind of cryogenic proof test (using liquid nitrogen) or wet dress rehearsal (WDR; using real liquid methane and oxygen). While there were initial signs that SpaceX would put SN8 through one or several more Raptor static fires before clearing the rocket for flight, it appears that those plans were cancelled earlier this week.

Less testing amplifies the risk that Starship SN8 will fail after liftoff, the probability of which Musk has pegged at ~67%. Regardless, SN8’s launch debut is bound to be spectacular and Starships SN9 and SN10 are nearly ready to take over wherever SN8 leaves off.

(Update: Sunday) SpaceX’s high-altitude Starship launch debut slips to Monday
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