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Sunday, April 14, 2024

SpaceX Launches—and Crashes—Its Starship Mars Rocket

On Wednesday afternoon, SpaceX successfully launched—and nearly landed—a fully-assembled prototype of its next generation Starship rocket on a suborbital flight from its facility in south Texas. This is the rocket that Elon Musk hopes will soon carry humans to the moon and, eventually, to Mars, but Wednesday’s launch was an uncrewed test flight that lasted just a few minutes. The rocket flew to an altitude of 40,000 feet—roughly the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner—and performed what Musk has called a “belly flop” maneuver on its way back to earth. The rocket executed a controlled descent to the surface and righted itself just a few hundred feet above the ground. But it wasn’t able to slow its descent enough to safely touch down, and it exploded spectacularly near the landing pad. While the rocket made it only about a tenth of the way to space and didn’t survive the landing attempt, it’s still a major step toward a first orbital mission and a big win for Musk’s interplanetary ambitions.

SpaceX’s Starship looks like it was ripped straight from the pages of a pulp science fiction novel. Its gleaming, bullet-shaped silver hull is a patchwork of stainless steel plates. Two triangular fins protrude from its lower half, with two smaller fins near its tip. Starship is huge—15 stories from engine to nose cone—but it is only the upper stage of a still larger rocket called the Super Heavy. This booster is a scaled-up version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and will come equipped with three times as many engines. When SpaceX mates a Falcon Super Heavy booster and Starship, the entire ensemble will stand nearly 400 feet tall. It will be just a few feet taller than NASA’s Saturn V rocket that carried humans to the moon, which remains the largest and most powerful rocket that has ever flown to space.

Both the Super Heavy and Starship will use SpaceX’s new Raptor rocket engines, which are far more powerful than the Merlin engines that the company currently uses on all of its Falcon rockets. SpaceX has flown a Raptor engine on four occasions, twice during test flights for Starhopper, a scaled-down version of Starship that looked more like a grain silo than a rocket, and twice during test flights of a Starship prototype. Each Starhopper flight carried only a single engine and boosted the vehicle a few hundred feet in the air. During Wednesday’s test flight, the Starship prototype carried three Raptor engines and was the first time that a SpaceX rocket has flown more than one at the same time. One of the Raptor engines cut out about 2 minutes into the flight, and the second cut out shortly thereafter. It’s unclear whether those engines were intentionally shut down or malfunctioned during the flight. When Starship is ready to head to space, it will carry six Raptors—three optimized for flying through the atmosphere and three optimized for the vacuum of space—and the Super Heavy booster will be powered by 28 Raptor engines.

Over the past year, SpaceX has lost several Starship prototypes during static fires, a type of test during which the engine is fired while the rocket is bolted to the ground. Some of the explosions—or “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” as Musk puts it—were intentional and meant to push the rocket's components to the extreme to see when and how they fail. SpaceX technicians have had to crank out new rockets at a breakneck pace to keep up with the nonstop testing. In fact, by the time the Starship prototype launched on Wednesday, there was another already waiting in the wings in case this version didn’t make it back to earth in one piece. Even Musk only gave it about a “1/3 chance” of surviving its maiden journey. “Lot of things need to go right, but that's why we have SN9 and SN10,” Musk tweeted, referring to the next Starship prototypes to fly.

While SpaceX has perfected the art of landing its Falcon 9 rockets, its Starship vehicle has a very different and highly challenging flight profile. Whereas Falcon 9 boosters fall back to earth vertically, with their engines down and noses up, Starship is designed to fall broadside through the atmosphere and flip to a vertical posture shortly before landing. This unusual reentry is all about aerodynamics. By executing a belly flop, Starship can more accurately control its landing using its fins. But this type of landing maneuver is also unprecedented, which means that it carries a lot of risk until SpaceX gets a better idea of how Starship reacts while it’s returning to earth.

Now that the first test flight is out of the way, SpaceX engineers have a wealth of data that will help them figure out how to stick the landing and push Starship to higher altitudes. While its first jaunts to orbit will be uncrewed, Starship is destined to carry astronauts beyond low earth orbit. Musk already sold Starship’s first crewed flight around the moon to the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who pledged to bring a handful of artists along for the ride. The leaders of NASA’s human spaceflight program are also interested in leveraging Starship for their own lunar ambitions. Earlier this year, the agency tapped SpaceX to develop a version of the rocket that is capable of landing astronauts on the moon’s surface.

But the real reason SpaceX is developing Starship—and the whole reason Musk got into the space business to begin with—is to get boot prints on the Red Planet. If Musk wants to settle Mars in a reasonable amount of time, he’s going to need a large interplanetary transport system that can carry hundreds of tons of cargo and dozens of passengers at a time. Earlier this month, Musk predicted that Starship might carry the first astronauts to Mars as early as 2026, an incredibly aggressive timeline that only a few months ago would have seemed delusional. But now that Starship has taken to the skies, Mars really does feel closer than ever.

Updated 12-11-2020, 4:45 pm EST: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the Raptor engines have flown on four test flights and that at least some of the explosions during testing were intentional.

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