Today, November 18, at 13.03 UTC, SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy launch vehicle lifted off for the second time, 7 months after the maiden flight. The launch was overall a success with several improvements compared to the first one. The Liftoff was first scheduled for Friday 17, but an issue with the booster’s grid fins electric actuator, has forced SpaceX to postpone the launch.
Liftoff of Starship! pic.twitter.com/qXnGXXZP5k— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 18, 2023
Nearly five seconds after ignition, all 33 Super Heavy’s Raptor engines pushed up the most powerful rocket ever built. The booster then began a linear and precise ascent without any engine failures, taking the Starship up to 75 km altitude.
The most anticipated moment of the mission arrived at T+ 02:45 when the vehicle successfully performed the new Hot-Staging maneuver, overcoming many predictions. This technique involves the ignition of the upper stage before stage separation to improve performance.
Booster 9 shutted down the majority of its engines, except the three central, and the Ship ignited the six sea-level and Vacuum Raptors, separating from the Booster. Super Heavy was then planned to perform a boostback and splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. However, 45 seconds after separation the FTS (Flight Termination System) was probably triggered, putting an end to its flight with a spectacular explosion. The reasons for what happened are not yet completely clear.
Meanwhile, Ship 25 continued its flight, following a nominal trajectory. The Starship engine cutoff was planned eight and a half minutes after liftoff. However, at 150 km of altitude, the signal with the vehicle was lost, and shortly after SpaceX confirmed during the webcast that the FTS was activated, thus ending the mission.
As for the first launch, the flight plan included the Starship completing a 90-minute trip around the planet after stage separation. It was then expected to re-enter near Hawaii. Although this goal was not achieved today either, the results obtained in the second launch are crucial for the continuation of the Starship project. In particular, the outcomes with the improved Raptor 2 engines, the deluge system, and Hot-Staging are promising.
Even without official data and confirmation on the mission, the most visible progress appears to be related to the Super Heavy booster and its 33 Raptor engines. In April, many issues, including fuel leaks and the shutdown of various engines, affected the liftoff, preventing the Booster 7 from reaching the separation velocity. The test ended with the destruction of the entire vehicle. This time, the new Raptor 2 engines worked well, and the hot staging ring hardware allowed for a proper Hot-Stage separation.
During the first liftoff, the launch pad suffered significant damage caused by the power of the Super Heavy. The fracture in the underlying concrete had caused the dispersal of many debris over a wide area. To address the problem, SpaceX developed and tested a water deluge and flame deflector system. With today’s launch, we have confirmation of the correct functioning of the system; the launch pad did not visibly suffer any damage.
As per protocol, shortly after the launch, the FAA announced the opening of a mishap investigation. Now, we will wait for further updates to understand when SpaceX will be ready and authorized to proceed toward the next Starship test flight.