SpaceX video previews possible Starship booster ‘catch’ on next flight

In early June, the rocket for SpaceX's fourth full Starship test flight is ready to launch from Starbase, the company's private launch site in South Texas.
Enlarge / In early June, the rocket for SpaceX’s fourth full Starship test flight is ready to launch from Starbase, the company’s private launch site in South Texas.


In a short video released on Thursday, possibly in honor of the American holiday July 4 featuring the red glow of the largest rocket ever, SpaceX presented new footage of the most recent test of its Starship launch vehicle.

The test, the fourth of the experimental rocket that NASA is counting on to land its astronauts on the moon and one day send humans to Mars, took place on June 6. During the flight, the rocket’s first stage performed well during ascent and, after separating from the upper stage, made a controlled reentry into the Gulf of Mexico. Starship’s 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 on the “Super Heavy” booster stage and its entry into the Gulf. There is new footage from a camera atop the 230-foot-tall first stage and a nearby buoy at water level. The buoy video in particular shows the first stage landing upright in the ocean.

Fourth flight of Starship.

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

Then, simulated footage shows the Starship’s first stage descending back to the launch tower, labeled “Flight 5.” The video then fades out.

To land or not to land?

This supports the idea that SpaceX is trying to catch a Starship booster on its next flight, which is likely to take place later this summer. The company undoubtedly has both technical and regulatory work to do before that can happen.

In the days immediately following the fourth flight test, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the company had a goal of attempting such a landing on its next launch. However, during a conversation with local residents in South Texas last week, Starbase General Manager Kathy Lueders said that such an attempt might not happen on Flight 5.

However, the new video released Thursday suggests that a capture attempt is still on the table as a possibility, and perhaps even a probability. Such a landing would be both visually stunning and a calculated risk to SpaceX’s launch tower infrastructure, since the booster would likely touch down with several tons of methane and liquid oxygen fuel in its tanks.

If SpaceX decides to proceed with the attempt, it will still need to obtain a launch and reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is charged with ensuring the safety of people and property on the ground. It seems likely that the next test flight won’t happen before August.

Flight 5 preview.
Enlarge / Flight 5 preview.


Meanwhile, activities at the launch site in South Texas could be curtailed for a few days as Hurricane Beryl enters the Gulf of Mexico later Friday and then heads toward the Texas coast early next week. The center of Beryl is expected to pass near or north of the launch site late Sunday night or Monday, bringing wind and waves.

However, since Beryl is not considered a major hurricane in terms of wind speed, these impacts should not be catastrophic for SpaceX facilities. Heavy rain and flooding in the low-lying Starbase area are also a possibility on Monday and Tuesday before the storm dissipates.

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