SpaceX video gives hope: “Catch” of Starship booster possible on next flight

Enlarge / In early June, the rocket for SpaceX's fourth full-scale Starship test flight will await launch from Starbase, the company's private launch facility in South Texas.


In a short video released on Thursday – possibly to celebrate the US Fourth of July holiday with the bright red light of the biggest rocket of all – SpaceX shared new footage from the latest test of its Starship launch vehicle.

The test, the fourth of the experimental rocket that NASA hopes will land astronauts on the moon and could one day take humans to Mars, took place on June 6. During the flight, the rocket's first stage ascent went well and, after separating from the upper stage, it made a controlled re-entry into the Gulf of Mexico. The Starship's upper stage appeared to complete a normal flight through space before making a controlled – if fiery – landing in the Indian Ocean.

The new video focuses primarily on the Super Heavy booster stage and its entry into the Gulf. There is new footage from a camera on the 230-foot-tall first stage as well as a nearby buoy at water level. The video from the buoy in particular shows the first stage landing upright in the ocean.

Fourth flight test of the spacecraft.

Perhaps most interestingly, at the end of the video, SpaceX shows a picture of Starship's large launch tower at the Starbase facility in South Texas. Notice the two “rods,” large arms designed to catch the first-stage booster as it slowly descends back to its launch pad.

The video then shows simulated footage of Starship's first stage, titled “Flight 5,” descending back to the launch tower. And then it fades out.

To land or not to land?

This supports the idea that SpaceX will attempt to capture a Starship booster during its next flight test, likely this summer. No doubt the company still needs to complete engineering and regulatory work before this can happen.

In the days immediately following the fourth flight test, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the company's goal was to attempt such a landing on its next launch. But speaking to residents in South Texas last week, Starbase CEO Kathy Lueders said that attempt might not happen on Flight 5.

But new video released Thursday suggests a capture attempt is still possible, and perhaps even likely. Such a landing would be both visually stunning and a calculated risk to SpaceX's launch tower infrastructure, as the booster rocket would likely land with several extra tons of methane and liquid oxygen in its tanks.

If SpaceX decides to go ahead with the attempt, it will still need to obtain a launch and reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for the safety of people and property on the ground. It's likely the next test flight won't take place before August.

Flight 5 – a little preview.
Enlarge / Flight 5 – a little preview.


Meanwhile, activities at the launch site in South Texas could be limited 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 with it winds and storm surge.

However, since Beryl is not expected to become a hurricane with high wind speeds, these impacts are not expected to be catastrophic for SpaceX facilities. Before the storm moves away, heavy rain and flooding are also possible inland in the low-lying Starbase area on Monday and Tuesday.