SpaceX is preparing for a major milestone: the first orbital velocity launch of the combined Super Heavy booster and Starship overstage.
The Spaceship The deep-space rocket system is scheduled to launch from SpaceX’s Starbase facility near Boca Chica, Texas, Monday (April 17) during a 150-minute window that opens at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT).
The gigantic 394-foot-tall (120-meter), two-stage Starship was stacked on orbital launch pad at Starbase on April 5, ready for pre-launch testing.
Related: SpaceX’s Starship looks amazing stacked up for launch in these photos
The Starship consists of a huge first-stage booster, called the Super Heavy, and an upper-stage spacecraft known as the Starship. The test flight will specifically use the Ship 24 and Booster 7 prototypes.
Starship and its test flights have been among the most captivating developments in the space sector, and the first orbital mission has been long awaited. However, the test launch will be another step on a long road towards the launch pad becoming fully operational.
Once it starts, the entire flight will take about 90 minutes, starting at Starbase, flying east across the Gulf of Mexico and between the Florida Straits, ending near Hawaii.
Both the Super Heavy and Starship are designed to be fully reusable, but this will be the only flight for Booster 7 and Ship 24; both vehicles will splash into the ocean rather than make vertical, powered landings on terra firma or a “drone ship,” like the first stages of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets usually do.
Booster 7’s 33 Raptor methane liquid oxygen engines are scheduled to shut down 169 seconds into the flight and separate from Ship 24 three seconds later, according to SpaceX’s mission statement (opens in a new tab). Booster 7 will restart a select few of its engines to bring it back toward Texas, eventually splashing down about 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico about eight minutes after launch.
The starship’s upper stage six Raptor engines, meanwhile, will start up at 177 seconds, or just under three minutes into the flight, continuing the vehicle’s eastward journey. These engines will burn for approximately 6.5 minutes, shutting down 560 seconds into the flight.
Ship 24 won’t complete a full orbit around Earth, but it will reach what’s called orbital velocity — for low Earth orbit, about 17,500 mph (28,160 km/h) — at an altitude of about 150 miles, if all goes according to plan the plan.
The starship will then undergo a testing, high-speed reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. If all goes well, it will splash down about 100 km off the northwest coast of Kauai, part of the Hawaiian archipelago.
This splashdown is scheduled to take place 90 minutes after liftoff from Boca Chica. The test flight aims to provide a lot of valuable information for SpaceX as it looks to get the Starship fully operational.
“SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify input dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally,” according to a document (opens in a new tab) about the test flight that SpaceX submitted to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2021.
“This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design or CONOPs [concept of operations] after the first flight and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.”
IN another 2021 FCC filing (opens in a new tab)states SpaceX that both the booster and Starship spacecraft will sport Starlink satellite terminals to demonstrate high data rate communications during flight operations.
“SpaceX’s satellite constellation can provide unprecedented volumes of telemetry and enable communications during atmospheric penetration when ionized plasma surrounding the spacecraft inhibits conventional telemetry frequencies. These tests will demonstrate its ability to improve the efficiency and safety of future spaceflight missions in orbit,” the filing said.
SpaceX has made numerous prototypes of its Starship elements, and improvements to structures, systems and software have been assessed and implemented after each test or flight. Some of the most important milestones have been followed immediately by explosive conclusions.
This first orbital speed flight is the most challenging and significant step so far, and it will provide a number of lessons regardless of the outcome.
SpaceX’s long-term vision is to have Starships that carry crew and cargo to the moon and Marchwith the reusability which also reduces the costs of launch.
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