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SpaceX clears big hurdle on next-gen Starship rocket program

Credit: Video frame from live stream by @SpacePadreIsle.

A prototype rocket for a massive reusable vehicle SpaceX is designing to fly people to the moon and Mars took off from a launching stand in South Texas on Tuesday, flew to a height of roughly 500 feet, then made a controlled descent to a nearby landing pad.

The 500-foot (150-meter) “hop” test was the first of a Starship rocket with full-size propellant tanks, and it sets the stage for a series of progressively higher atmospheric demonstration flights with future vehicles. Eventually, SpaceX aims to shoot the Starship into orbit on top of an even taller booster rocket named the “Super Heavy” to deliver to space huge cargo loads, satellites, telescopes, and science probes.

SpaceX’s longer-term roadmap includes an in-orbit refueling capability to make trips to the moon possible. NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship vehicle as one of three contenders — alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics — for a human-rated lunar lander the space agency will fund for crewed moon missions later this decade.

And the Starship is central to the vision of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, who established the company with a mission of sending people to Mars. Future Starships could cruise to Mars with up to 100 people, Musk says.

“Mars is looking real,” Musk tweeted after Tuesday’s test flight. “Progress is accelerating.”

That mission took a step closer to reality with Tuesday’s test flight, which was intended to test out the Starship’s guidance system, the structural strength of its stainless steel tanks, and a number of other basic functions before attempting launches to higher altitudes.

The Starship test flight Tuesday capped a busy few days for SpaceX. The company’s first human-rated Crew Dragon spaceship returned to Earth Sunday with a smooth splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, bringing home NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken after a 64-day test flight to the International Space Station.

SpaceX followed that up with an attempt to fly the Starship Monday evening in South Texas, but the company aborted the flight just before takeoff. Another countdown Tuesday afternoon was likewise aborted before SpaceX pressed ahead with a successful flight Tuesday evening.

One of SpaceX’s Raptor engines, fed by methane and liquid oxygen, powered the Starship off its launch platform at 7:57 p.m. EDT (6:57 p.m. CDT; 2357 GMT) Tuesday. The throttleable Raptor engine produces up to 440,000 pounds of thrust at full power, according to SpaceX, and it’s the most powerful methane-fueled rocket engine ever flown.

Live videos of the test streamed on YouTube showed the rocket climb away from the launch stand at SpaceX’s test site at Boca Chica, Texas, located just east of Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border. After swiveling its Raptor engine to maintain control, the shining silver testbed reached its maximum altitude before commencing its descent, deploying landing legs, and settling on flat ground after laterally covering about the length of a football field in its approximately 45-second flight.

SpaceX has additional Starship vehicles in production at the Boca Chica site, and one of those could attempt a flight up to 65,000 feet, or 20 kilometers. A timetable for that test flight has not been announced by SpaceX or Elon Musk.

The higher-altitude experiments will require SpaceX to install an aerodynamic nose cone on future Starship vehicles, along with fins and other aerosurfaces. Higher flights will also need three Raptor engines, before SpaceX finally goes to a six-engine Starship configuration for orbital missions, which will also require a heat shield for re-entry.

With the nose cone added, the Starship vehicle reach a height of around 164 feet, or 50 meters. The vehicle that flew Tuesday measures around 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack will stand around 394 feet (120 meters) tall. The Super Heavy will be powered by more than 30 Raptor engines, according to SpaceX, making it the most powerful rocket ever built — generating some 16 million pounds of thrust.

An operational Starship could haul more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, SpaceX says.

SpaceX had a rocky road reaching Tuesday’s milestone test flight, but engineers tweaked the Starship’s design and introduced improved manufacturing techniques to address structural deficiencies that led to the loss of four Starship prototypes during ground testing since late last year.

Each explosion during testing proved little more than a minor setback, and SpaceX quickly moved on to the next Starship prototype as part of the company’s fast-paced iterative development process.

Speaking to reporters and space fans last September, Musk suggested the first Starship prototype could perform a high-altitude atmospheric test flight before the end of 2019. That didn’t happen, but the high-altitude flight now appears within reach.

SpaceX says it will eventually replace its current fleet of space vehicles — the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, and the Dragon spaceship — with the Starship. But those vehicles won’t be retired until SpaceX proves out the Starship’s capabilities and reliability.

NASA officials were closely watching the Starship test flight Tuesday, which followed a successful test-firing of the vehicle on the launch stand at Boca Chica last week. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate, tweeted his congratulations to SpaceX.

While NASA is considering the commercial Starship rocket as a vehicle to ferry astronauts between lunar orbit and the moon’s surface, the agency’s plans for returning humans to the moon in the 2020s relies on the government-owned Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule to transport astronauts from the Earth to the vicinity of the moon.

Once in orbit around the moon, the Orion crew capsule would link up with a human-rated lunar lander — possibly a Starship — to fly the astronauts to the moon’s surface, then boost them back into space to rendezvous with Orion for the return trip to Earth.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said the SLS and Orion vehicles offer the only opportunity to launch astronauts off the Earth toward the moon by 2024, the timetable for a crewed lunar landing set last year by the Trump administration. But that could after 2024 if SpaceX’s Starship, or other vehicles, come online.

NASA has purchased rides for astronauts on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, and SpaceX is under contract to deliver cargo to the planned Gateway mini-space station in lunar orbit — a future staging point for expeditions to the moon’s surface — beginning as soon as 2024.

In April, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said SpaceX’s Starship “could be absolutely game-changing” for space exploration.

“So we don’t want to discount it,” Bridenstine said. “We want to move forward. If they can have success, we want to enjoy that success with them.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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SpaceX Starship test vehicle explodes moments after test-firing

A full-size prototype of SpaceX’s Starship violently exploded in South Texas moments after a test-firing of its Raptor engine Friday, dealing a setback to the company’s next-generation reusable rocket program.

The fiery explosion at SpaceX’s test site at Boca Chica, just east of Brownsville near the U.S.-Mexico border, occurred at 1:49 p.m. CDT (2:49 p.m. EDT; 1849 GMT) Friday, around two minutes after a brief firing of a Raptor engine mounted to the base of the Starship vehicle.

SpaceX typically evacuates the area around the test site for engine hotfires, and there were no reports of injuries Friday.

A cloud of vapors suddenly appeared around the bottom of the Starship vehicle — made of stainless steel — moments after the Raptor engine appeared to complete a normal test-firing that lasted a few seconds. Vapors were also visible streaming from vents higher up on the Starship vehicle before the explosion.

The Starship was loaded with cryogenic methane and liquid oxygen propellants for Friday’s test.

The fire appeared to originate near the base of the rocket, and the Starship was nearly instantaneously engulfed in a fireball. Multiple live webcams aimed at the Starship showed debris from the rocket falling around the test stand, which also appeared to sustain damage.

The explosion occurred one day before a separate SpaceX team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida plans a second launch attempt for the company’s first spaceflight with humans aboard a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft. An earlier try was scrubbed Wednesday due to bad weather.

The Starship is SpaceX’s next-generation spaceship. The company intends for the Starship and its booster rocket, called the Super Heavy, to eventually replace the Falcon 9 and Dragon vehicles.

The loss of another Starship vehicle Friday marked the fourth time a Starship test vehicle destroyed during ground testing in a little more than six months.

An initial Starship prototype ruptured during cryogenic pressure testing at Boca Chica last November, less than two months after SpaceX founder Elon Musk hosted a presentation at the South Texas test site provide an update on the company’s Starship plans.

Speaking to reporters and space fans last September, Musk suggested the first Starship prototype could perform a high-altitude atmospheric test flight before the end of 2019.

But SpaceX has since refined the Starship design and introduced improved manufacturing techniques to address structural deficiencies.

A second Starship test rocket crumpled during another pressure test in early March, and a third one collapsed during a similar cryogenic loading test April 3. Friday’s accident was the first Starship mishap to occur in conjunction with a Raptor engine test.

But SpaceX quickly moved on to the next Starship prototype as part of the company’s fast-paced iterative development process. Additional Starships are already in production for the next stage of testing at Boca Chica for the next stage of testing.

The fourth full-size Starship vehicle, which was destroyed Friday, passed the cryogenic pressure test milestone April 26. SpaceX then installed a Raptor engine on the bottom of the vehicle and conducted a test-firing May 5, then performed a series of additional hotfire tests throughout May leading up to Friday’s Raptor test-firing.

The tests were leading up to a hop test of the Starship vehicle as soon as next week. A temporary flight restriction closing airspace over the Boca Chica test site to an altitude of 26,000 feet (7,900 meters) was in place for Monday, June 1, suggesting SpaceX might attempt a low-altitude test flight of the Starship on that date.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a launch license Thursday for SpaceX to conduct suborbital test flights of the Starship prototype at Boca Chica, clearing a major regulatory hurdle before the company proceeds into the next phase of flight testing with a full-size Starship vehicle. A sub-scale Starship prototype flew last August on a hop to an altitude of 500 feet (150 meters), then translated to a nearby landing pad, where it descended vertically and touched down.

The Starship is one of two components of SpaceX’s next-generation reusable launch system, which the company says will be the most powerful rocket ever built. Future Starship vehicles will be joined with a Super Heavy booster, which SpaceX is also developing, to loft massive payloads into Earth orbit, to the moon, Mars and other deep space destinations.

The privately-developed Starship vehicle stands around 164 feet (50 meters) tall with its nose cone installed. The nose cone, which includes aerodynamic fins, was not on the rocket for Wednesday’s test. The vehicle measures around 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack will stand around 387 feet (118 meters) tall. The Super Heavy will be powered by more than 30 Raptor engines, according to SpaceX.

An operational Starship could haul more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, SpaceX said.

“Starship has the capability to transport satellites, payloads, crew, and cargo to a variety of orbits and Earth, lunar, or Martian landing sites,” SpaceX wrote in a Starship user’s guide released earlier this year.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $135 million contract April 30 to advance steps to demonstrate the feasibility of using a Starship variant to land astronauts on the moon as part of the space agency’s Artemis program. NASA also awarded lunar lander contracts to industrial teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.