SpaceX has demonstrated its ability to land Starship, but the company still needs to send the prototype rocket into space and have it survive reentry. Here’s how SpaceX envisions the first orbital test of its futuristic system — and what could go wrong.
With the successful vertical landing of the SN15 prototype on May 5, SpaceX is now looking ahead to the next testing milestone: space itself. On May 13, the company submitted an application to the Federal Communications Commission for a communications licence to support an “experimental orbital demo” and “recovery test” of the Starship vehicle following a launch from the SpaceX test facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
Further details were sketched out in an accompanying attachment. For the first orbital test, a Starship upper stage will be stacked atop a Super Heavy booster (SpaceX has launched the first stage several times already, and landed it once without an explosion, but the Super Heavy is still in development). During the test of the combined Starship launch system, SpaceX will “collect as much data as possible” to “better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally,” according to the filing. In turn, this data will inform possible refinements to the system and allow for better models during subsequent simulations.
Approximately 169 seconds into the flight, the Super Heavy booster will shut down, but instead of returning to Boca Chica, the booster will perform a “partial return” and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles (32 km) from shore. The nature of the landing wasn’t specified, but it’ll probably involve a splashdown in the ocean.
As for the upper stage, its engines will ignite five seconds after separation and continue on a trajectory that will see it fly over the Florida Straits. The vehicle will eventually achieve orbit, followed by a “powered, targeted landing” some 62 miles (100 km) off the northwest coast of Kauai, Hawaii, according to the SpaceX filing. The upper stage will complete less than one full orbit of Earth and perform a “soft ocean landing.” The whole thing should last no longer than around 90 minutes.
When asked to provide more details about this water landing, Musk said SpaceX needs to “make sure [the rocket] won’t break up on reentry, hence deorbit over Pacific,” as he tweeted. Indeed, this is the part of the test that will be of greatest concern to the company: making sure the gigantic upper stage doesn’t fall to pieces during atmospheric reentry.
Testing Starship heatshield hex tiles pic.twitter.com/PycE9VthxQ
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 17, 2019
To that end, SpaceX is developing a “thermal protection system,” or heat shield, that will protect the rocket’s belly during reentry. A video from 2019 showed the hexagonal-shaped tiles undergoing tests, in which the tiles were exposed to temperatures reaching 1,650 degrees Kelvin (1,357 C). And back in March of this year, photos showed a series of hex tiles attached to the surface of a Starship prototype. Should the Starship upper stage break up on reentry during its inaugural orbital test, it would represent a major blow to the project.
SpaceX’s Thermal Protection System pic.twitter.com/TWezicwcYW
— Austin Barnard???? (@austinbarnard45) March 15, 2021
In its application to the FCC, SpaceX asked for a licence effective June 20, but these tests will be contingent on a licence from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
“That licence will depend on the status of an ongoing environmental assessment of Starship/Super Heavy launch operations from Boca Chica, which fall outside the scope of the original environmental impact statement prepared when SpaceX planned to use the site for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles,” according to SpaceNews.
This process is still ongoing, but the results of assessment could require SpaceX to submit a more comprehensive environmental impact statement. Regardless, the company is taking the steps needed to move forward. The Starship project was given added significance following NASA’s decision to integrate the system into its Artemis project, which could see a man and woman walking on the Moon by 2024.