SpaceX video teases potential Starship booster “catch” on next flight

Enlarge / In early June, the rocket for SpaceX’s fourth full-scale Starship test flight awaits liftoff from Starbase, the company’s private launch base in South Texas.


In a short video released Thursday, possibly to celebrate the US Fourth of July holiday with the biggest rocket’s red glare of them all, SpaceX provided new footage of the most recent test of its Starship launch vehicle.

This test, the fourth of the experimental rocket that NASA is counting on to land its astronauts on the Moon, and which one day may launch humans to Mars, took place on June 6. During the flight, the first stage of the rocket performed well during ascent and, after separating from the upper stage, made a controlled reentry into the Gulf of Mexico. The Starship upper stage appeared to make a nominal flight through space before making a controlled—if fiery—landing in the Indian Ocean.

The new video focuses mostly on the “Super Heavy” booster stage and its entry into the Gulf. There is new footage from a camera on top of the 71-meter-tall first stage as well as a nearby buoy at water level. The video from the buoy, in particular, shows the first stage making an upright landing into the ocean.

Starship fourth flight test.

Perhaps most intriguingly, at the end of the video, SpaceX teases an image of Starship’s large launch tower in South Texas at the Starbase facility. Prominently featured are the two “chopsticks,” large arms intended to catch the first stage booster as it slowly descends back toward its launch pad.

Then, in simulated footage, the video shows Starship’s first stage descending back toward the launch tower with the title “Flight 5.” And then it fades out.

To land, or not to land?

This supports the idea that SpaceX is working toward attempting a Starship booster catch on its next flight test, which likely will occur later this summer. Doubtless, the company still has both technical and regulatory work before this can happen.

In the days immediately following the fourth flight test, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said it was the company’s goal to make such a landing attempt on the next launch. However, during a talk last week with local residents in south Texas, Starbase General Manager Kathy Lueders said this attempt might not occur on Flight 5.

However, the new video released Thursday indicates that a catch attempt is still on the table as a possibility, and perhaps even a likelihood. Such a landing would be both stunning visually, as well as a calculated risk to SpaceX’s launch tower infrastructure, as the booster likely would be landing with a few spare tons of methane and liquid oxygen propellant in its tanks.

If SpaceX decides to press ahead with the attempt, it must still obtain a launch and reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is tasked with ensuring the safety of people and property on the ground. It seems probable that the next test flight will not occur before August.

Flight 5 tease.
Enlarge / Flight 5 tease.


Meanwhile, activities at the South Texas launch site may well be curtailed for a couple of days as Hurricane Beryl enters the Gulf of Mexico later on Friday and then tracks toward the Texas coast early next week. The center of Beryl is expected to pass near or north of the launch site late on Sunday night or Monday, bringing winds and surges.

However, because Beryl is not expected to be a major hurricane in terms of wind speed, these impacts should not prove catastrophic to SpaceX facilities. Heavy rainfall and inland flooding in the low-lying Starbase area is also a possibility on Monday and Tuesday before the storm pulls away.

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