Status: 24/09/2023, 19:11 p.m.
By: Emanuel Zylla
SpaceX and Elon Musk have made the "Starship" ready for launch. The next test flight now depends on approval by the FAA.
Boca Chica – If you look at the SpaceX star base in Boca Chica, Texas these days, you might think everything is ready for the next test flight. The actual spacecraft, the prototype "Starship SN25", was already mounted on September 5 on the lower section, the booster "Super Heavy 9". With an expectant and determined attitude, the 120-meter-high rocket system at SpaceX's starbase seems to rise into the sky. But when will the "Starship" finally start?
However, Elon Musk, who as CEO of SpaceX should certainly know, has not yet been able to announce a launch date on his Platform X on August 23 and remained undetermined: "Next Starship launch soon." On Sept. 6, after merging the "Starship" components, Musk gave more information on X: "The Starship is ready for launch and awaiting approval by an FAA license." It is now in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the USA when the largest space rocket to date will be allowed to start its eleventh test flight.
SpaceX's "Starship": Waiting for the FAA's license
But then came the setback for SpaceX on September 8: Initially, there was no license for the next test flight from the FAA. The U.S. agency investigated the last test flight, which was carried out in April with the prototype "Starship SN24". Memories are awakened: Due to a leak in the fuel tank of the propulsion section, the unmanned "Starship" got out of control on April 20, 2023 and had to be blown up. The launch pad was also damaged in the accident. Despite the failed test flight, the highest altitude of a "Starship" rocket to date was reached at 39 kilometers.
The complete Starship system ready for launch at SpaceX's Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. The rocket consists of the actual spacecraft "Starship" in the upper area and the auxiliary rocket "Super Heavy". © IMAGO/SPACEX
The FAA concluded in its statement on its own final report that "there are 63 corrective actions that SpaceX must take to prevent a recurrence of the accident."
The FAA gave clear instructions: not only did the vehicle technology have to be revised to avoid further leaks and the resulting fires, but the launch pad also had to be made more robust. The entire design process must be reviewed and further tests of safety-relevant components – including the autonomous safety system – must be carried out.
"Starship" launch: SpaceX has already changed the points required by the FAA
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's list of requirements initially suggests that SpaceX still has a lot of work ahead of it. However, just two days after the FAA statement, Elon Musk tweeted on X: "Congratulations to SpaceX for completing and documenting the 57 points required by the FAA for Flight 2 of 'Starship'! It is worth noting that 6 of the 63 measures relate to future flights."
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The SpaceX chief also published lists of the 57 emergency measures, each of which was rated as "complete". The remaining six points read 'Measure for the future'. Now the ball is back in the FAA's court, which must first review these changes.
"Starship" and "Super Heavy": the SpaceX rocket system in focus
SpaceX's Starship and Super Heavy rocket are collectively referred to as Starship. The two segments together have a height of 120 meters and a width of 9 meters. According to SpaceX, it can be used as a "fully reusable transportation system" capable of transporting both crew and cargo "to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond." The reusable payload is given as 100 to 150 tonnes, which could be extended up to 250 tonnes.
The 50-meter-high top of the "Starship" system houses the actual spacecraft, in which the crew and cargo are transported. It can be built in different designs. It provides space for 1200 tons of fuel for engines capable of generating a thrust of 14,709,975 Newtons in the Earth's normal gravitational field. With the spacecraft, it should be possible to reach any place on Earth within less than an hour.
The booster rocket "Super Heavy" is currently powered by 33 Raptor engines. The launch system uses frozen liquid methane and liquid oxygen as fuel. The rocket is particularly environmentally friendly: it can return to the Earth's atmosphere and land at the launch point. SpaceX has already successfully tested these flight capabilities in the past.
When does SpaceX's "Starship" launch?
The fact that the implementation took place so quickly could be due to the fact that Musk had already announced "well over a thousand changes" to the online magazine Ars Technica in June. In addition to the "Starship", these also affect the launch pad and the huge launch tower of the SpaceX spaceport. This has already proven itself in tests: the launch pad received a reinforced steel foundation capable of cooling the 33 extremely powerful Raptor engines of the super-heavy booster with water.
Musk describes to Ars Technica another important modernization of the "Starship" engines: "We have made a groundbreaking change," Musk informs about the upgrade, which is called "hot staging". "The engines of the upper section, i.e. the spacecraft, are ignited. At the same time, the engines of the lower section, those of the booster, are still activated." The so-called "hot stage separation" is already being used, for example, in the Russian Soyuz rocket.
FAA could issue license for the "Starship" in October 2023
But it is still unclear when exactly the "Starship" will be able to start its planned orbital test flight. Sometime in October, however, it seems realistic at the moment. FAA Administrator Polly Trottenberg commented to Reuters on Sept. 13: "We are working well with SpaceX and have had productive conversations. I think we're optimistic about issuing a license sometime next month."
On September 13, SpaceX already took a symbolic readiness position on X. The team posted a group photo of themselves in front of the "Starship" launch pad and tweeted confidently and, above all, internationally: "Made on Earth by humans." (zy)
This article, written by the editors, used machine support. The article was carefully reviewed by editor Tanja Banner before publication.