Skip to main content

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)

See more

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.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.