Starship, SpaceX’s under-development rocket, has completed a high-altitude flight without exploding — and now it’s taking on an even bigger challenge.
On May 13, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed via Twitter that the company plans to send its ship “3/4 of the way around the Earth,” in an ambitious orbital flight that will lift off from Texas and will eventually land near Hawaii. A document from the Federal Communications Commission gives more details of what the historic flight may actually entail.
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It’s all building toward the biggest test yet for SpaceX’s ship.
SpaceX Starship: What is it?
The Starship is an under-development, fully-reusable rocket. Musk unveiled its predecessor, the BFR, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, back in September 2017. Musk suggested at the event that the BFR could fly to Mars as early as 2022, a goal that Spacex is almost guaranteed to miss at this stage even with Starship so close to completion.
Starship is designed to send over 150 tons or 100 people into space at a time. It’s meant to replace all of SpaceX’s existing rockets, including the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9, which means it will also launch satellites for the company’s third-party clients.
It could also launch Starlink satellites, as part of the firm’s emerging internet connectivity constellation. A June 2020 render shows how, while the Falcon 9 currently launches up to 60 Starlink satellites at a time, the Starship could pack 240 at once.
But the Starship’s most enticing feature is perhaps its ability to transport humans to Mars and beyond. Unlike Falcon 9, which uses rocket propellant as its fuel, the Starship is designed to use liquid oxygen and methane as fuel.
This means astronauts could potentially fly to Mars, harvest more fuel from the planet’s resources, and either fly home or venture out further. Musk’s goal is to send the first humans to Mars in the mid-2020s, before establishing the first city on Mars by 2050.
The ship will also power other missions, like a planned trip around the Moon involving Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and eight competition winners.
The Starship will use a booster dubbed the Super Heavy to leave the Earth. Paired together, the full construction measures around 400 feet tall.
SpaceX Starship: what is the plan for the orbital flight?
SpaceX plans to send a prototype model of the Starship on its first orbital flight in the coming months, an important step toward those flights to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The goal of the flight will be to collect data about how the ship works during a flight, information the firm claims would be “extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally.”
The Starship will take off from Starbase, Texas. Just under two minutes after liftoff, at 171 seconds, the Super Heavy booster will separate from the ship. That booster will then land in the Gulf of Mexico, around 20 miles from the shore, just over eight minutes after launch at 495 seconds.
The ship itself will continue on its journey to reach orbit. This is the launch plan for the ship itself:
It will then complete a targeted powered landing off the coast of Hawaii, landing softly into the ocean. The ship will come to a stop around 60 miles northwest of the coast of Kauai.
The flight will end around 90 minutes after liftoff, at 5,420 seconds.
The location is a specific choice, Musk says.
“We need to make sure ship won’t break up on reentry, hence deorbit over Pacific,” Musk wrote on Twitter.
SpaceX Starship: when is the orbital flight?
An orbital flight has been a big goal for Musk for years, but now it might actually be within his reach. At a September 2019 event, Musk claimed the firm was aiming for an orbital flight within a matter of months — obviously, that didn’t happen.
The firm’s application to the Federal Communication Commission outlines a requested period of operation, beginning on June 20, 2021, and ending on December 20, 2021. That gives SpaceX a six-month window to make the flight happen. The window opens around one month from now, so it could be mere weeks before SpaceX could hold the orbital flight.
SpaceX Starship: what does this mean for the timeline?
Musk, in classic fashion, has an ambitious timeline for the next steps.
In an April 2021 news conference, Musk discussed the firm’s planned partnership with NASA. The deal, which is now in question after an outcry from competitors, would see SpaceX use the Starship as a human lander for NASA’s Artemis missions that will return humans to the Moon.
“I think 2024 seems likely," Musk said during the event. "We're gonna aim for sooner than that.”
A flight in 2023 would be a quick turnaround time. SpaceX’s first successful flight of the Falcon 9 v1.0 was in June 2010, and its first non-test mission was the first Commercial Resupply Services mission for NASA in October 2012.
As NASA’s stated goal is to land humans on the Moon in 2024, the pressure is on for a successful orbital flight to happen this year.
THE STARSHIP’S JOURNEY, SUMMARIZED:
- November 2018 — BFR, first announced in September 2017, gets renamed to Starship.
- December 2018 — Musk confirms the new ship has switched to stainless steel.
- January 2019 — Shortened “Starhopper” prototype unveiled and Musk explains the switch to steel.
- February 2019 — Raptor engine beats a long-standing rocket record.
- April 2019 — Starhopper completes a tethered “hop.”
- July 2019 — Starhopper launches 20 meters (67 feet).
- August 2019 — Starhopper launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- September 2019 — Starship Mk.1 full-size prototype unveiled.
- May 2020 — Starship SN4 full-size prototype completes a static test fire.
- August 2020 — SN5 launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- October 2020 — SN8 completes the first triple-Raptor static fire.
- December 2020 — SN8 launches 12.5 kilometers (41,000 feet) and crashes into the ground.
- February 2021 — SN9 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and crashes into the ground.
- March 2021 — SN10 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet), lands, and explodes eight minutes later. That same month, SN11 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and hits the ground in several pieces.
- May 2021 — SN15 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and lands without a hitch, except for a small fire at the base.
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