SpaceX is aiming to conduct the third test flight of its next-generation Starship spacecraft in February 2024, following investigations into why the last flight ended abruptly in an explosion. The company has made several adjustments to address the fueling procedures that likely caused the anomaly. Now Starship’s booster and spaceship prototypes are undergoing final checks ahead of this important demonstration mission.
Background On The Starship Program
The Starship spacecraft is SpaceX’s fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond. It consists of two elements – the Super Heavy booster which provides the initial thrust at liftoff, and the Starship vehicle itself which detaches and takes the payload to its destination.
Starship represents the culmination of Musk’s vision to make humanity multiplanetary by enabling affordable access to space through complete reusability. The entire system is being designed for rapid turnaround, with the booster capable of flying again just an hour after landing and Starship in under a day. This quick reflight ability will be key for settling Mars.
Lead Up To The Latest Test Flight Attempt
On May 13th, 2022, SpaceX conducted the second test flight of a Starship prototype known as SN15. This followed SN8 and SN9 which crashed on landing in late 2020 and early 2021. SN15 succeeded in demonstrating a belly flop maneuver during descent along with reigniting its engines for a precise touchdown. However, a fire broke out at the base a few minutes later, engulfing the vehicle in an explosive conflagration likely fueled by residual propellants.
While SN15 achieved several test objectives, the premature loss highlighted lingering issues SpaceX needed to work through related to propellant loading and drainage. Elon Musk revealed that the proximal cause was accidentally filling the tanks with excess methane, which didn’t have time to fully vent before ignition led to a rapid unscheduled disassembly (RUD).
This explanation was consistent with observations of large volumes of vapor spewing from SN15 leading up to the fire. Resolving these kinds of propellant handling problems in Starship’s complex plumbing is key before allowing astronauts on board.
Path To The Third Test Flight
In response to the SN15 incident, SpaceX implemented improved propellant loading procedures and added more vents to facilitate drainage. They assigned the SN20 prototype to be the next to fly, with Booster 7 receiving upgrades like enhanced avionics and controllers qualified for orbital reentry.
However SN20 and Booster 7 suffered delays, including damage to SN20 from high coastal winds. SpaceX ultimately rolled the improved Booster 10 and SN28 to the launch site in late 2022 to form the new Starship test stack.
These versions incorporate changes like a stretched propellant tank design in SN28 for better mass efficiency. They also feature heat shield enhancements on both elements, with Booster 10 having an extended skirt and fins to support hypersonic reentry.
After transport to the orbital launch pad, the vehicle pairing underwent integrated testing like several wet dress rehearsals to practice fueling procedures:
|December 15th, 2022
|Tank pressure & leak checks passed
|Static fire #1
|January 5th, 2023
|Short 3 engine ignition
|Static fire #2
|January 10th, 2023
|Full thrust 33 engine burn
These milestones verified SpaceX’s corrections to the propellant issues that destroyed SN15. The tanks maintained integrity under cryogenic conditions and during active firing, while venting excess gas as expected.
This paved the way for SpaceX to proceed towards the ambitious third test flight demonstratin many Starship milestones in one mission.
Highlights Of Upcoming Third Test Flight
For the next Starship test, SpaceX intends to fly the highest and farthest yet while testing several critical maneuvers for rocket recovery:
- High altitude flight to approx. 70,000 feet
- Barrel roll and flip maneuver during ascent
- Deployment of body flaps for controlled descent
- Relight of 3 Raptor engines for landing flip
- Touchdown at landing zone with precise trajectory
The goals are to gather more data on Starship’s performance while pushing the envelope further than the prior peaks of around 40,000 feet.
This flight will also debut the first use of body flaps integrated on the vehicle to enable aerodynamic control authority during the belly flop and final landing burn.
The barrel roll will serve as an early demonstration of the maneuverability offered by having 6 actuating surfaces and 3 powerful engines available for redundancy. This ability to reroute will be essential for future point to point Starship variants transporting passengers.
While only 3 sea level engines will relight for the landing this time, it will provide important understanding about restarting after long coasting in very thin atmosphere. Refining propellant conditioning for these scenarios will pay dividends when Starship returns from orbital velocities.
Next Steps After The Test
If the upcoming flight test achieves its objectives successfully, SpaceX will move towards the first orbital launch attempt of Starship possibly later in 2024. This would involve 6 Raptor Vacuum engines optimized for efficiency outside the atmosphere powering the vehicle to over 15,000 mph.
For such an ambitious maiden journey, the Starship is expected to just achieve a single loop around Earth before performing a targeted splashdown. This will allow the team to concentrate primarily on the critical re-entry and descent portions without needing to immediately nail a pinpoint landing.
There are also plans taking shape for an uncrewed circumlunar test flight under NASA’s Artemis program. SpaceX’s Starship was selected as the Human Landing System to ferry astronauts between the Gateway and moon’s surface. This voyage around the moon planned for 2025 will shake out Starship systems before astronauts depend on it.
Ultimately, after extensive qualifications, the Starship stack is envisioned to enable regular transport of 100+ ton payloads and 100+ people to destinations like Mars for less than a tenth the cost of current launch vehicles. But first it must begin incrementally proving out the advanced technologies through high stakes tests like the one targeted next month.
The outcome of the imminent third flight attempt will signal whether SpaceX has sufficiently matured the recovery process challenges unique to such a massive fully reusable architecture. A successful demonstration would be a giant leap towards the goal of making life multiplanetary.
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