SpaceX, the private space company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has shared new images of its Starship rocket, which is being prepared for its second orbital flight test. The images show a new feature on the top of the Super Heavy booster, which is the first stage of the two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle. The feature is a ring of vents that will allow the hot exhaust from the Starship’s engines to escape during the separation process.
What is Starship and why is it important?
Starship is SpaceX’s ambitious project to create a fully reusable launch system that can carry up to 100 tons or 100 people to low Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The system consists of two elements: the Starship spacecraft, which is the second stage and can also serve as a cargo or crew transport vehicle, and the Super Heavy booster, which is the first stage and provides most of the thrust needed to escape Earth’s gravity.
Starship is designed to use liquid oxygen and liquid methane as propellants, which can be produced on Mars using local resources. This means that Starship could potentially refuel on the Red Planet and return to Earth or explore other destinations in the solar system. Starship could also enable rapid point-to-point transportation on Earth, reducing travel time between any two cities to less than an hour.
SpaceX has been developing and testing Starship prototypes at its Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, since 2019. The company has performed several high-altitude flight tests with Starship vehicles, reaching up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in altitude and demonstrating controlled landing maneuvers. However, none of these vehicles have survived the landing attempt so far.
What happened during the first orbital flight test?
The first orbital flight test of Starship took place on April 20, 2023, when SpaceX launched a Starship vehicle named SN24 and a Super Heavy booster named BN3 from Starbase. The plan was to send Starship into a low Earth orbit with an apogee of about 250 kilometers (155 miles) and a perigee of about 50 kilometers (31 miles), then re-enter the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii after about 90 minutes of flight. The Super Heavy booster was supposed to separate from Starship at an altitude of about 70 kilometers (43 miles) and perform a boost-back burn to land on a floating platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
However, things did not go as planned. Shortly after liftoff, four of the 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster shut down prematurely due to a malfunction in the hot gas manifold, which distributes propellant to the combustion chambers. This reduced the thrust and velocity of the booster, making it unable to reach the desired orbit. As a result, SpaceX decided to abort the mission and activate the flight termination system, which detonated explosive charges on both stages to destroy them in mid-air.
The explosion created a spectacular fireball that was visible from miles away. Debris from the rocket rained down over a large area, causing damage to some buildings and vehicles. No injuries were reported, but some residents were evacuated as a precaution. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates commercial space launches in the US, launched an investigation into the incident and suspended SpaceX’s launch license until further notice.
What are the changes for the second orbital flight test?
SpaceX has been working hard to fix the issues that caused the failure of the first orbital flight test and make improvements to its Starship design. The company has submitted a mishap report to the FAA and is awaiting approval for its next launch attempt. SpaceX hopes to conduct the second orbital flight test before the end of 2023.
One of the most noticeable changes for the second orbital flight test is the addition of a vented interstage ring on top of the Super Heavy booster. This ring is meant to divert the superhot plasma from the Starship’s engines away from the booster’s tanks and other sensitive components during separation. This separation method is called hot staging, which is commonly used on Russian rockets and could increase Starship’s payload capacity by 10%, according to Musk.
The vented interstage ring also has a heat shield attached to it, which will protect it from re-entry heating when it returns to Earth. The Super Heavy booster will use grid fins and landing legs for guidance and landing control, similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters.
The Starship vehicle that will fly on the second orbital flight test is named SN25 and will have six Raptor engines: three sea-level engines for ascent and landing, and three vacuum-optimized engines for orbital maneuvering. SN25 will also have a nose cone with aerodynamic flaps for stability and steering during re-entry.
The flight plan for SN25 is similar to that of SN24, except that it will aim for a higher orbit with an apogee of about 500 kilometers (310 miles) and a perigee of about 200 kilometers (124 miles). This will allow SN25 to experience higher speeds and temperatures during re-entry, testing its heat shield and thermal protection system. SN25 will also attempt to land on a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, instead of splashing down in the water.
What are the future goals for Starship?
SpaceX has big plans for Starship, which it hopes will become the ultimate space transportation system for humanity. The company wants to use Starship to launch satellites, space stations, lunar landers, and interplanetary missions. Some of the projects that SpaceX has announced or proposed for Starship include:
- Starlink: A constellation of thousands of satellites that will provide global broadband internet access.
- Dear Moon: A private lunar tourism mission that will fly eight artists and one billionaire around the Moon in 2024.
- Artemis: A NASA program that will send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2026. SpaceX has been awarded a contract to develop a human landing system based on Starship for this program.
- Mars: A long-term vision to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. SpaceX plans to send the first uncrewed Starship mission to Mars in 2026, followed by the first crewed mission in 2028.
- Starship Earth-to-Earth: A service that will offer point-to-point transportation on Earth using Starship, reducing travel time between any two cities to less than an hour.
SpaceX is not the only company working on reusable launch systems, but it is certainly the most ambitious and innovative one. Starship represents a bold leap forward in space exploration and colonization, and could revolutionize the way we access and utilize space. However, Starship also faces many technical and regulatory challenges, and will require extensive testing and validation before it can achieve its full potential. The second orbital flight test will be another critical milestone for SpaceX and Starship, and will hopefully bring them closer to their ultimate goals.