When it comes to SpaceX’s upcoming Starship test flight, the stakes are high and the questions are many. The success of this mission will be critical in determining the future of the ambitious Starship program, which has far-reaching implications for space exploration and satellite internet connectivity.
In the first three minutes of the upcoming Starship test flight, we will witness a series of pivotal moments that could shape the course of space technology. These moments include assessing the performance of the upgraded Starship launch pad in Texas, checking the reliability of the rocket’s Raptor engines, and validating the new separation system of the rocket’s Super Heavy booster from the Starship upper stage.
These crucial tests will not only impact SpaceX’s immediate plans but also the broader vision for the Starship program. The company’s future objectives include launching Starlink Internet satellites to enable direct connectivity with consumer cell phones, testing in-orbit refueling for Moon missions in collaboration with NASA, and demonstrating the recovery of both the massive booster and upper stage to establish the rocket’s full reusability.
From where we left…
To understand the significance of these tests, it’s worth recalling that Starship’s maiden full-scale test flight in April faced significant challenges.
The launch mount had to be reinforced (and rebuilt) due to the immense thrust generated by the Super Heavy booster’s methane-fueled Raptor engines, which exceeded 15 million pounds of thrust. The new and improved launch pad now incorporates a water-cooled steel plate beneath the Starship’s support, to better handle the heat and acoustic energy during liftoff.
In April, the Super Heavy booster suffered from engine failures, propellant leaks, and fires, eventually leading to a loss of control and the rocket’s destruction (with the Autonomous Flight Termination System properly activating but with late destructive effect).
The lessons learned from that mission have been instrumental in making necessary adjustments and improvements to Starship’s design. The upcoming test flight is part of an ongoing experimental phase, illustrating the iterative nature of the program. SpaceX is committed to refining the rocket, addressing issues, and continuously enhancing its capabilities.
Assuming all regulatory hurdles are cleared, the second Starship test flight could occur very soon, potentially within the coming week.
…To what await us
Once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service complete their environmental review, SpaceX will receive the launch license. Technicians will finalize the arming of the (autonomous) flight termination system, an essential mechanism for safely destroying the vehicle if it deviates from its intended path.
The fully formed launch vehicle, standing at an impressive 400 feet (~122m), will be loaded with over 10 million pounds of methane and liquid oxygen. If everything checks out, the 33 Raptor engines will be ignited and liftoff will occur two second past the T0.
Starship and Super Heavy were loaded with more than 10 million pounds of propellant today in a flight-like rehearsal ahead of launch pic.twitter.com/VbBTdR5h9p— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 25, 2023
Elon Musk has set clear expectations for this flight. Unlike the first test, he is confident that the vehicle has a “60% chance” of making it to near-orbital velocity, this would mean reaching space and completing a 90-minute journey around the world, culminating in a reentry and splashdown of the Starship in the Pacific Ocean.
Achieving this “ambitious goal”, to say the least, would be a resounding success, signifying that nearly all components of the Starship rocket performed as intended. This includes the engines on both stages, the innovative “hot-staging” separation system, the effectiveness of the heat shield tiles on the Ship during reentry, and the complex guidance, navigation, and control systems.
Success in this mission would unlock next phases of the program. It could lead to launching Starlink satellites on Starship by the end of the next year and initiating in-orbit refueling tests, a crucial milestone for NASA’s Artemis program, which relies on Starship for lunar missions as the Human Landing System.
Improvements are awaiting
Elon Musk has expressed optimism about the mission. On the other hand, a catastrophic failure, similar to the April test, could set the program back by at least six months and potentially lead to increased regulatory scrutiny.
To demonstrate progress, SpaceX aims to overcome the issues that led to fuel leaks and fires during the April test. This involves improving the reliability of the Raptor engines and the new electric thrust vector controls used for steering in flight.
One particularly noteworthy change is the introduction of “hot staging”, a technique rarely used in modern US launch vehicles. Instead of separating the booster and upper stage without any engines firing, Starship’s upper stage engines will ignite while the booster is still attached. This approach, considered riskier, has the potential to improve payload capacity and has been subject to careful engineering to mitigate potential hazards.
The upcoming flight also features “Raptor 2” engines, and SpaceX is actively working on an upgraded “Raptor 3” design to enhance reliability. Other measures, such as strengthened shielding around the booster’s engines, have been implemented to reduce the risk of engine failures “domino” effect.
Soft, and not so soft, splashdowns
The culmination of this mission will see the Super Heavy booster attempting a controlled soft splashdown, while the Starship upper stage fires its engines in space for nearly six minutes. These simultaneous activities are integral to SpaceX’s vision of reusing the booster multiple times for future Starship flights.
This second Starship test flight promises to be a pivotal event in the world of space exploration. The expectations are higher this time, especially considering NASA’s substantial investments in Starship for Moon landings. Success in this mission would clear the path for further testing and, ultimately, orbital refueling in the near future.
While the Starship program is marked by its fast-paced development and a rich inventory of rockets, significant hurdles remain before it can fulfill its goals.