Musk’s Massive Rocket Roars to Life Again as SpaceX Marches Towards Orbital Flight
SpaceX conducted yet another successful static fire test of its gargantuan Starship rocket on Tuesday, bringing the company one step closer to launching the next-generation vehicle on its first orbital test flight. This latest critical milestone paves the way for the third attempted orbital launch of the 400-foot-tall stainless steel rocket that Elon Musk hopes will one day carry humans and cargo to Mars.
The Raptor engines at the base of the rocket test article, named Ship 24, ignited for roughly 10 seconds at 9:07 p.m. EST Tuesday at SpaceX’s Starbase facility near the southern tip of Texas. As flames erupted from the engines, they lit up the towering silver vehicle and the launch stand shrouded in plumes of smoke on Pad A.
|Payload to LEO
|Payload to Mars
|33 Raptor engines
The hot fire test marked the third time the next-generation launch vehicle has fired its engines in anticipation of liftoff from Starbase. It came after SpaceX spent several days troubleshooting issues with Ship 24’s thrusters—small rockets used for maneuvering the vehicle in space—ultimately deciding to go ahead with the test firing without fixing them first.
SpaceX Targeting January for Highly Anticipated Orbital Attempt No. 3
This critical prelaunch test is the strongest indication yet that SpaceX could be just weeks away from launching the 164-foot Starship rocket stacked atop a 223-foot Super Heavy booster. Musk said recently he was hopeful the vehicle would be ready for another orbital launch attempt as early as mid-January 2023.
The last two tries ended in spectacular explosions minutes after liftoff when problems emerged after the two stages separated in flight. But SpaceX gathered valuable data from those test flights that have helped improve and streamline development of Starship hardware.
Both previous orbital launch attempts took place in the first half of 2022. The first on February 9 ended abruptly with a fireball 6 minutes into the test flight due to low pressure in the vehicle’s Raptor engines causing them to shut down. The second try on March 30 made it much further, reaching an altitude of over 6 miles, but still failed to achieve orbit when the Ship vehicle crashed into the ocean following stage separation.
This time around SpaceX will be striving to successfully complete an orbital flight where Starship reaches space altitudes over 100 km above Earth. After separating from the Super Heavy booster, Ship 24 will continue on a long suborbital trajectory. To achieve orbit, it will need to reignite 3 Raptor engines to accelerate to orbital velocity before coasting around Earth and reentering the atmosphere an hour later. The flight is expected to splash down in the Pacific Ocean just short of the Hawaiian islands.
Starship Poised to Become World’s Most Powerful Operational Rocket
The stainless steel Starship system includes both the upper Starship spacecraft, designed to carry over 100 metric tons to Earth orbit, and the Super Heavy rocket booster needed to thrust it off the launch pad. Once complete, the integrated vehicle will stand taller than any other operational rocket in history, towering nearly 400 feet high.
The highly reusable transportation system will be capable of ferrying humans and cargo to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. It will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program which aims to return astronauts the lunar surface later this decade.
SpaceX has inked a $2.9 billion contract with NASA to develop Starship into a long-duration spacecraft that can transport crew between lunar orbit and the surface of the Moon. This past November, NASA announced that SpaceX will use Starship for the agency’s first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 over 50 years ago.
The version of Starship now sitting on the launchpad is actually the fourth full-scale flight article built by SpaceX. The previous Ship vehicles (SN15 through SN17) completed short 150 meter test flights successfully, demonstrating soft landings. And even more iterations are deep into production and will pave the way for an accelerated launch cadence if the upcoming orbital flight goes well.
Path Cleared for Final Tests Before Potential January Liftoff
Now that the static fire is complete, SpaceX teams just need to analyze data from the brief ignition before proceeding to the final tests required ahead of launch day. This includes a more thorough wet dress rehearsal which fuels up both stages and cycles the launch countdown as practice. Teams will also complete additional checkouts of ground systems and conduct more integrated tests with the rocket.
Once these final milestones wrap up, SpaceX will carry out the standard prelaunch process starting with rollout from the build site to the orbital launchpad a few miles away. After raising Ship 24 atop Booster 7 and connecting all the flight hardware, the combined Super Heavy and Starship vehicle will stand 395 feet tall on the pad.
The goal then is to complete the first orbital flight of this new launch vehicle. Success would make Starship the most powerful rocket to achieve Earth orbit, even surpassing NASA’s mighty Saturn V moon rocket from the Apollo era.
From Boca Chica, Texas to the shores of Hawaii, people across America and rocket enthusiasts around the world will be watching closely as SpaceX cements Starship’s status as the future of space exploration.
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