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May 29, 2024

SpaceX Gears Up for Third Starship Test Flight as Musk Sets Ambitious Production Targets

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Jan 14, 2024

SpaceX is preparing for the third test flight of its next-generation Starship vehicle in February 2024, CEO Elon Musk revealed this week. The flight will build on key lessons from the first two test flights as the company works to develop a fully reusable rocket system capable of carrying cargo and crews to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Starship Progressing Rapidly Despite Setbacks

The first two Starship test flights ended with spectacular explosions shortly after liftoff or landing. However, Musk said these early tests successfully demonstrated key flight milestones and SpaceX was able to gather crucial data to inform future design iterations.

Although the vehicles were lost, “both flights advanced understanding & get us closer to orbit, Mars & Moon,” Musk tweeted.

SpaceX says the loss of the second Starship prototype last month was likely caused by a rapid venting of propellants shortly before touchdown. This resulted in the vehicle slamming into the landing pad at high speed.

“We learned a lot from flight 2,” said SpaceX engineer Kate Tice at a recent press briefing covered by NASASpaceFlight. “Primarily…how sensitive the vehicle can be to the loading conditions and the pressures that resulted inside the vehicle from those conditions prior to flight.”

SpaceX will apply that knowledge to the upcoming third flight, using improved propellant loading procedures to avoid similar issues.

Ambitious Targets Set for Starship Production

Despite the setbacks, Musk reiterated his ambitious goals to mass produce Starships to make human life multiplanetary.

“SpaceX needs to build Starships as often as Boeing builds 737’s, with excellent reliability,” Musk said on Twitter this week. Boeing typically produces around 30-50 of the single aisle 737 aircraft per month.

Translated to rocket production, that would equate to over 1,000 Starships per year at the rates Boeing can churn out airliners. This dwarfs the 8-12 launches SpaceX currently achieves annually with its Falcon 9 rocket.

Why So Many Starships?

Musk aims to build 1,000 Starships over 10 years, which he says is the bare minimum needed to establish a self-sustaining city on Mars. Each Starship could carry up to 100 tonnes of cargo or 100 passengers to Mars per flight.

“Almost all investment will turn to Starship/Raptor after Falcon/Dragon are operational,” Musk explained.

The goal is for Starship flights to become so routine and affordable that middle class people could realistically afford to immigrate to Mars. Musk estimates ticket prices could drop as low as $100,000 per seat once a thriving colony is established.

Moon Mission Critical Step Toward Mars

While Musk’s eyes are firmly set on Mars, NASA also has big plans for Starship. The agency selected SpaceX to develop a crewed lunar lander variant of Starship to carry astronauts to and from the Moon’s surface for its Artemis program later this decade.

The Starship lunar mission will serve as a critical final test before long duration flights to Mars commence.

“The Moon provides an opportunity to test out a lot of operational conditions and logistics with Starship that are needed for Mars,” said Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Artemis campaign. “The Moon is like the front porch to space while Mars is like moving to another continent.”

Before Starship attempts crewed flights to the Moon or beyond, SpaceX plans a series of orbital test launches to prove out the full launch and landing system.

The upcoming 150 meter hop test in February will be a major leap (pun intended) toward that goal.

Test Flight Number Date Notes Outcome
1 August 2023 150 m hop Crashed on landing
2 September 2023 6 mile hop Crashed on landing
3 February 2024 150 m hop (planned) TBD

“Table summarizing key stats from the first two Starship test flights and upcoming third flight.”

What Will Starship Flight 3 Demonstrate?

The third Starship iteration rolling to the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas in the coming weeks incorporates changes to avoid the propellant loading issues encountered on the last flight.

Teams have also simplified the vehicle design by removing the nose cone and payload section for this test focused on takeoff and landing maneuvers. This theoretically makes the rocket more stable in flight.

Additionally, engineers tweaked the engine configuration on the booster to use seven Raptor engines instead of six. The booster generates the power needed to propel Starship skyward during the initial phase of launch.

After separating from the upper stage spaceship mid-flight, the booster (designated Booster 10) will attempt to land upright a short distance from the launch pad – a maneuver pioneered by SpaceX with Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

Meanwhile, the spaceship itself (Ship 28) will perform a “belly flop” maneuver at apogee to flip orientation and bleed off speed as it plunges back toward Earth. The vehicle will then re-light three Raptor engines to guide itself to a soft vertical landing back at the Boca Chica launch complex.

This mirrors the technique Starships will use when returning from orbital or deep space missions. Performing it successfully on this 150 meter hop will build confidence ahead of more ambitious flights.

Both booster and ship prototypes wrapping up preparations have completed vigorous ground testing campaigns, including loading and unloading propellants to simulate launch countdown procedures.

What Comes After Flight 3?

If the next test goes according to plan, SpaceX will likely move forward with the first orbital launch attempt using the same vehicles later in 2024. Additional Starships and boosters are also under construction to enable a high flight rate.

Long term, Musk said he expects the booster to eventually feature up to 20 Raptor engines and Starship itself could grow from six engines up to at least nine. This added power will enable transporting heavier cargo loads to destinations like Mars.

SpaceX continues working with NASA to ensure Starship meets stringent human rating requirements for crew safety ahead of the Artemis lunar missions. Test flights at the Moon will provide crucial operational experience before embarking on the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent settlement on Mars in the late 2020s.

Regular Starship launches could fundamentally transform how we access space. If Musk achieves his vision of making humanity multiplanetary with a self-sustaining city on Mars, it would rank among the most ambitious feats ever undertaken.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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