SpaceX plans Starship test flight today

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The Starship SN10 test vehicle stands on its launch pad at Boca Chica, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

The next prototype of SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle — Starship SN10 — is scheduled to take off from the company’s South Texas test site and fly to an altitude of more than 30,000 feet as soon as Wednesday, the third high-altitude experimental flight for the Starship program after losing two previous test vehicles on landing.

SpaceX officials hope lessons learned from the previous two landing accidents will lead to a successful Starship landing Wednesday. A hard landing on an otherwise-successful Dec. 9 test flight was caused by low pressure from header tanks feeding the vehicle’s Raptor engines for the critical burn just before touchdown, and one of the Raptor engines failed to reignite for the landing burn on a test flight Feb. 2.

The Starship program is SpaceX’s next-generation heavy-lift rocket, and is designed to ferry people and cargo to deep space destinations such as the moon and Mars, according to Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO. SpaceX is expanding a rocket manufacturing and test facility at the Boca Chica site. Musk tweeted Tuesday he plans to “create” a city named Starbase, Texas, at the location just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

SpaceX is focusing, for now, on testing the 164-foot-tall (50-meter) upper stage of the huge rocket, which measures around 30 feet (9 meters) wide, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

That portion of the vehicle is known simply as Starship, while a powerful booster yet to be built is called Super Heavy. The Starship and Super Heavy are both designed for vertical takeoffs and landings, with the Super Heavy detaching a few minutes after liftoff to return to Earth, and the Starship continuing into orbit.

The entire vehicle will stand nearly 400 feet, or about 120 meters, tall and carry more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, more than any rocket in the world. With life support systems and in-space refueling, the Starship could carry heavy cargo and people beyond Earth orbit. SpaceX is of of three industrial teams with a NASA contract to design and refine concepts for a human-rated lunar lander for the space agency’s Artemis moon program.

The Starship Serial Number 10, or SN10, test vehicle is fitted with three methane-oxygen Raptor engines, which will power the rocket off the launch pad near Brownsville, Texas. The engines are expected to shut down one at at time during ascent.

SpaceX plans to fly the stainless steel test rocket to an altitude of about 10,000 meters, or 32,800 feet, with the Raptor engines, each of which is capable of generating about 500,000 pounds of thrust at full throttle. After reaching the high point of its trajectory, the rocket is designed to tip over to a horizontal position for the fall back to Earth, using actuating two forward and two aft flaps to control its descent.

Finally, seconds before reaching the ground, the Raptor engines will reignite and flip the rocket back vertical to attempt a propulsive landing on a pad next to the launch site on the Texas Gulf Coast.

“A controlled aerodynamic descent with body flaps and vertical landing capability, combined with in-space refilling, are critical to landing Starship at destinations across the solar system where prepared surfaces or runways do not exist, and returning to Earth,” SpaceX said. “This capability will enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.”

The orbital version of the Starship vehicle will have six Raptor engines and a heat shield to survive re-entry back into the atmosphere. The Super Heavy booster will be powered by 28 Raptor engines.

Like the previous Starship test flights, SpaceX said it will provide a live webcast of the launch and landing Wednesday. But the company cautioned schedules could change throughout the day due to the “dynamic schedule of development testing.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a temporary flight restriction over the Boca Chica test site Wednesday that opens at 8 a.m. CST (9 a.m. EST; 1400 GMT) and runs until 7:30 p.m. EST (6:30 p.m. CST; 0030 GMT).

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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