SpaceX’s giant rocket to Mars and beyond could take its first orbital flight sometime within the next year — but questions around where it will fly from caused delays in the company’s planning applications. Now, we know that the company will launch Starships from the SpaceX Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas (which has prompted controversy).
So far, SpaceX has tested all six Raptor engines on its Starship upper-stage prototype called Ship 24. The vehicle will be launched by Booster 7 — a prototype for the Super Heavy first-stage rocket. On February 9, the company fired 31 of the 33 Raptor engines.
The plan was to ignite all 33, but the “team turned off 1 engine just before start & 1 stopped itself, so 31 engines fired overall,” Elon Musk tweeted. “But still enough engines to reach orbit!” This marked an important step toward the orbital test flight.
In the previous test on January 23, SpaceX fueled a fully stacked 395-foot-tall Starship, also known as a wet dress rehearsal. The team performed various tasks that will also be required on launch day, such as putting liquid methane propellant (over 10 million pounds of it) and liquid oxygen into the Super Heavy first stage and Starship upper stage.
But when will the Starship orbital test flight actually take place?
CEO Elon Musk tweeted on January 7 that the Starship test flight “a real shot at late February. March launch attempt appears highly likely.”
The recent announcement adds to a long series of delays for the Starship’s orbital test, largely due to the slow-moving application process for a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
But if everything works out, the fully-reusable ship could be the key to achieving Musk’s dream of a city on Mars, but it will depend on how it performs in upcoming tests. A flight to orbit, previously expected to take place in 2021, could now take place sometime next month.
First unveiled in 2017 under the name “BFR,” the Starship is a fully reusable vessel designed to send over 100 tons or 100 people into space at a time. It can replace the firm’s existing rockets like the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, while also taking on more ambitious goals like sending humans to Mars and beyond.
SpaceX is not waiting around to start these missions. The firm is aiming to send the first humans to Mars by 2029, before establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars as early as 2050.
It could all start with the Starship — and at around 400 feet when paired with the Super Heavy booster that lifts it away from the Earth, this thing is huge. It greatly eclipses the Falcon 9, which measured less than 230 feet tall. It’s also extremely powerful, with a lift-off thrust of 16 million pounds.
If successful, it will become the tallest and most powerful rocket ever. For comparison, the current record holder on both counts is NASA’s Saturn V, which measured 363 feet tall and offered 7.6 million pounds of thrust at launch. Saturn V was retired after its last launch in 1973.
SpaceX Starship orbital flight: what is the plan?
In May 2021, a document from the Federal Communications Commission revealed the plan for the first flight.
It claimed that the ship will take off from the firm’s Starbase, Texas, launch facility. SpaceX has gradually developed the facility, located in Boca Chica, to make it into a fully-fledged spaceport — including a tiki bar. But more recently, SpaceX has also built up a facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, another possible launch location.
Around two minutes after liftoff, at 171 seconds, the Super Heavy booster will separate from the Starship. The ship will continue to complete a targeted landing around 60 miles northwest of the coast of Hawaii. The whole flight will last around 90 minutes.
SpaceX will not land the booster or the ship on land. The booster will land in the Gulf of Mexico, around 20 miles offshore, at 495 seconds or eight minutes after launch. The ship will complete a targeted powered landing in the sea.
Meanwhile, Musk would consider flying out of Cape Canaveral if the flight is delayed by four to eight months at Starbase.
Cape Canaveral has served SpaceX well. It has launched 83 missions from Space Launch Complex 40, and 35 missions from Launch Complex 39A. The latter pad, which sent humans to the Moon back in 1969, would likely host the orbital flight if SpaceX can’t receive permissions for Starbase.
As of last week, SpaceX was nearly done constructing the Starship launch integration tower (Mechazilla) at Cape Canaveral, from which the massive vehicle will blast off into space.
SpaceX Starship: When is the orbital flight?
The latest Musk tweet pushes the orbital flight back to February or March. But the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t appear to have given SpaceX a license for the flight, so the launch could be delayed even further.
In August 2021, SpaceX successfully stacked the Starship ship on top of the Super Heavy booster in preparation for the orbital flight.
Underneath the ship is the launch platform. This giant ring-shaped structure is used to support the ship during the upcoming launch.
SpaceX Starship orbital flight: which ship will it use?
SpaceX will use the Super Heavy Booster 7 to launch a six-engine Starship prototype called Ship 24, according to Space.com. Booster 7 will plop into the Gulf of Mexico not long after liftoff, and the Starship will make its way around Earth and land in the Pacific Ocean near Kauai.
This version of the company’s new engine will offer around half a million pounds of thrust at sea level. As the booster is expected to use 33 Raptor engines, the Starship’s booster will offer a total sea-level thrust of around 16 million pounds.
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