SpaceX wrapped up 2023 with a series of key tests for its next-generation Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster, setting the stage for an ambitious launch campaign in 2024 aimed at proving out the giant new rocket system for missions to the Moon and Mars.
Key Milestones Achieved In Recent Weeks
Over the past few weeks, SpaceX teams at the company’s Starbase facility in South Texas have put both Starship and Super Heavy hardware through critical tests ahead of the next orbital launch attempt, known as Flight 3.
On December 19, engineers test-fired seven Raptor engines on a Starship upper stage, demonstrating a simulated landing burn sequence. This paved the way for the first integrated static fire test between a Super Heavy booster and Starship on December 21.
The key stats from that test:
|Super Heavy Booster 7
|33 Raptor engines
|7 Raptor engines
This marked the first time SpaceX fired up the 33-engine booster along with a Starship prototype. Teams were testing updated thrust vector control systems to steer the vehicle.
Most recently on January 3, another 10-second static fire test went off without a hitch on the launch pad’s thrust simulator, involving 31 Raptor engines on Super Heavy Booster 10 and 6 engines on Starship 33 upper stage.
Goals For 2024: Up To 12 Orbital Flights
SpaceX founder Elon Musk said that the company aims to launch Starship around once a month in 2024, with a goal of getting to an aircraft-like production tempo for the giant rockets.
“The goal for 2024 is to have a fleet of Starships and have multiple launches per day. So it’s a very fast production rate for Starship,” Musk said after the December 21 static fire test.
He wants Starships rolling off assembly lines as fast as Boeing builds 737 airliners – about one per 10 days: “We need to get to about a Starship roughly every two weeks. And those probably need to fly about three times a day.”
If all goes to plan in 2024, we could see 9 to 12 orbital test flights of Starship launching from Texas throughout the year.
The major objectives will be to:
- Test Starship re-entry from orbital velocities
- Master vertical rocket landings
- Refine rapid reuse techniques
- Verify performance of full stack with Super Heavy
- Test in-orbit refueling process critical for deep space missions
Additionally, NASA is eager to see Starship demonstrate reliability ahead of using a variant of the vehicle for crewed Artemis moon landings in the 2025-2026 timeframe.
Flight 3: First Orbital Attempt Of 2024 Looms
Barring any major setbacks, SpaceX is tracking toward the third orbital launch attempt of Starship in early 2024, perhaps as soon as late January.
Flight 3 will once again involve the first stage Super Heavy booster lifting off from Pad A while carrying a Starship upper stage filled with liquid oxygen and methane propellant.
Key parameters for Flight 3:
- Super Heavy Booster 10
- 33 Raptor 2 engines
- Starship 33 upper stage
- 6 Raptor engines
- 17.46 million lbs (~7,927 metric tons) of thrust at liftoff
The current prototypes have gone through extensive modifications and upgrades compared to prior vehicles lost during the first two launch attempts in 2021 and 2022.
SpaceX engineers have worked for months to improve engine performance, increase structural integrity, add additional Raptor engines and implement new avionics systems into the latest Starship iteration.
Teams have also modified the orbital launch pad structure after lessons learned from past explosive outcomes that caused major damage.
Outlook: Rapid Reuse & Multiple Flights Per Day In Tow By Mid-2020s
Industry analysts seem bullish on prospects for Starship’s sucess in the coming year or two despite extremely lofty goals set by Musk.
“SpaceX has pivoted into rapid reuse mode for both Starship and Super Heavy in 2023. They now have all their launch sites coming online for a multi-orbital-launch-per-week capability by 2025 or 2026,” said space industry analyst Greg Autry.
Though Starship has yet to reach orbit, the vehicle represents the company’s long-term vision for affordable space access and interplanetary travel.
If the 2024 test campaign hits key milestones, SpaceX may be ready to transition Starship into commercial service by 2025. Beyond NASA’s Artemis moon plans, early customers could include the first private lunar lander missions sending paying passengers for a trip around the Moon.
There is sure to be no shortage of excitement around Starbase this year as Musk’s engineers work to prove out reusable rocket technology that could one day enable the colonization of Mars. Each successful test in the coming year moves that vision one step further toward reality.
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