Satellite spots SpaceX's Starship SN9 from space ahead of explosive test flight

SpaceX's Starship SN9 and SN10 prototypes are seen from space in this image from a SkySat satellite. (Image credit: Planet Labs Inc.)

New satellite imagery shows SpaceX's Starship prototype poised on the launch pad ahead of its high-altitude test flight Tuesday (Feb. 2), which saw the prototype crash-land after successfully completing complex maneuvers in flight.

A SkySat satellite operated by the San Francisco-based company Planet captured high-definition satellite images of Starship SN9 at the company's South Texas site, near the Gulf Coast, hours before the launch. The company's fleet of SkySats includes 21 individual machines in varying orbital locations, allowing for revisits of an imaging area roughly five to 10 times a day, Planet said on its website.

"SN9's sister ship is visible slightly above and to the right, and the landing pad is the concrete square closer to the beach," Planet wrote in a photo caption. "This high-resolution SkySat image reveals details of the test facility, even the color of individual cars and trucks parked nearby."

Related: SpaceX has two Starship prototypes on the pad at the same time

The Starship flight — which is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration after the FAA said the event violated a launch license — took place near the small community of Boca Chica Village. The 165-foot (50 meters) prototype went through much of its flight plan, including shutting down its three Raptor engines and making it to the target altitude of roughly 6.2 miles (10 kilometers).

This closer view circles the location of SpaceX's Starship SN9 and SN10. The vehicles themselves are visible by their long shadows in this top-down view. (Image credit: Planet Labs Inc.)

SN9 also did a complicated horizontal flip that it would need to do during an optional reentry in Earth's atmosphere after an operational spaceflight. But it couldn't stick the landing and exploded into a fireball, similarly to predecessor SN8's fate on Dec. 9.

"We got a lot of good data, and the primary objective — to demonstrate control of the vehicle in the subsonic re-entry — looked to be very good, and we will take a lot out of that," SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker said during SpaceX's launch webcast, while admitting the landing sequence will need more work.

Related: Here's what SpaceX's 1st spaceship to carry astronauts looks like from space (satellite photos)

SN9 is the latest in a series of Starship prototypes in support of SpaceX's eventual goal of sending settlers and supplies to Mars. Another flight version, SN10, is about to start prelaunch testing.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: