Investing in Space

SpaceX delays Starship prototype rocket launch attempt after engine abort

Key Points
  • SpaceX came within two seconds of attempting to launch the latest prototype of its next-generation Starship rocket until an engine issue stopped the company short of liftoff on Tuesday.
  • "Raptor abort," was the call from SpaceX mission control.
  • Starship prototype Serial Number 8, or SN8, will aim to fly as high as 12.5 kilometers in the company's most ambitious test of the rocket to date.
Starship prototype SN8 aborts its liftoff attempt on Dec. 8, 2020.

SpaceX came within two seconds of launching Starship prototype rocket until an engine issue stopped the company short of liftoff on Tuesday.

"Raptor abort," was the call from SpaceX mission control at the 1.3 second mark in the countdown.

The company said it would stand down "for the day," likely to reset for launch opportunities on Wednesday and Thursday.

Starship prototype Serial Number 8, or SN8, will aim to fly as high as 12.5 kilometers, or about 41,000 feet, SpaceX confirmed to CNBC. The high-altitude flight represents the company's most ambitious test to date, as it's significantly higher than the pair of 500-foot flight tests that SpaceX completed with prototypes SN5 and SN6 earlier this year.

Notably, the goal of the SN8 flight is not necessarily to reach the maximum altitude, but rather to test several key parts of the Starship system.

"This suborbital flight is designed to test a number of objectives, from how the vehicle's three Raptor engines perform to the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities of the vehicle (including its body flaps) to how the vehicle manages propellant transition. SN8 will also attempt to perform a landing flip maneuver, which would be a first for a vehicle of this size," SpaceX said in a statement on its website.

Given the multiple development milestones the company is undertaking with the SN8 flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave the rocket low odds of complete success on the first try.

"Lot of things need to go right, so maybe 1/3 chance," Musk said.

Starship SN8 is built of stainless steel, with the prototypes representing the early versions of the rocket that Musk unveiled last year. The company is developing Starship with the goal of launching cargo and as many as a 100 people at a time on missions to the Moon and Mars.

While SpaceX's fleet of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are partially reusable, Musk's goal is to make Starship fully reusable — envisioning a rocket that is more akin to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights where the only major cost is fuel.

The company is building and testing the Starship prototypes at its growing facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The facility on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, about 20 miles east of the Texas city of Brownsville on the Mexico border.

Starship prototype rocket SN8 stands on the launchpad at SpaceX's facility in Boca Chica, Texas on Nov. 10, 2020.

SpaceX also noted that it has completed over 16,000 seconds – or nearly four and half cumulative hours – of tests running its Raptor series of engines, which are built to power Starship.

Three of SpaceX's Raptor engines at the base of its Starship rocket.

Musk has pivoted the company's attention to Starship ever since SpaceX in May successfully launched its first astronaut mission. He's deemed Starship the company's top priority, declaring in an email obtained by CNBC earlier this year that the development program must accelerate "dramatically and immediately."

Last year Musk said that Starship could potentially fly people in 2020, but he's since acknowledged that the rocket still has many milestones, including "hundreds of missions," to go before that happens.

SpaceX expects Starship's first orbital flight test won't come until next year.

SpaceX launches and lands another Starship prototype, its second flight test in under a month

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