SpaceX tries to launch its giant Starship rocket – again: NPR

SpaceX tries to launch its giant Starship rocket – again: NPR

The spacecraft is the largest rocket ever built. Elon Musk hopes to one day transport humans to Mars.

SpaceX


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The spacecraft is the largest rocket ever built. Elon Musk hopes to one day transport humans to Mars.

SpaceX

SpaceX is about to make its second attempt to launch the largest rocket the world has ever seen. The stainless steel monster, known as the Starship, is nearly 400 feet long. Its massive first stage, known only as “Super Heavy,” is powered by 33 Raptor engines that must work in perfect synchronization to carry the spacecraft into orbit.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk hopes that Starship will one day become a cheap, quickly reusable system that will spur human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Today’s test flight is a small first step. If successful, the spacecraft will launch from Texas, enter space briefly and then land in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. But even this may be an unattainable goal. this is the reason.

The spacecraft’s maiden flight in April did not go according to plan

The first test flight of any rocket will be difficult In its April 20 launch attempt, SpaceX tried to manage expectations. To some extent, the official countdown timeline promised “guaranteed excitement” after launch.

The rocket lifted off shortly after 8:30 a.m. local time. It was almost immediately apparent that some of the 33 engines on the first stage had failed, and as it rose into the sky, others caught fire.

The first spacecraft launch attempt ended in failure. The missile went out of control before exploding about four minutes after launch.

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The first spacecraft launch attempt ended in failure. The missile went out of control before exploding about four minutes after launch.

Eric Jay/AP

Before the spacecraft could separate from its booster, the entire rocket began to spin out of control. It exploded about 4 minutes into the flight.

In the aftermath, it was discovered that Starship’s flight termination system, which was designed to destroy the vehicle if it got out of control, had failed to do its job. Furthermore, the rocket’s first stage crushed the concrete launch pad during liftoff, sending dust particles and pieces of debris flying.

The pillow failure in particular was embarrassing, says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “This huge rocket blew up the pad and soaked the concrete miles away in Texas,” he says.

These missile errors also caught the attention of government regulators. The Federal Aviation Administration has grounded the spacecraft pending a safety and environmental review. Earlier this week, the regulator allowed SpaceX to make a second attempt, partly due to changes the company made to the design.

This time, SpaceX has made some major improvements

First, engineers added more oomph to the Starship’s self-destruct system. They placed larger explosive charges that would be able to destroy the fat rocket, if it veered off course as it did in April.

The company also created an entirely new system to attach the spacecraft to its booster rocket. The spacecraft will be allowed to use its engines to separate from the booster during flight, and continue its journey into orbit. That’s assuming it works: The so-called “hot staging” strategy is new to SpaceX, and isn’t used much on American rockets.

Third, the company claims that the Super Heavy booster rocket used on this flight has some significant improvements over the previous rocket. More importantly, it uses an electrical mechanism to control the propulsion of its dozens of motors. This would make the spacecraft more robust in the event that one or more engines fail during its ascent.

Finally, there’s a major upgrade to the launch pad, which was blown up in the first flight test. This time, SpaceX installed a water deluge system that will keep the pad from getting too hot. Such systems are commonly used for other launchers.

Starship is a big part of SpaceX’s business plans

SpaceX is investing heavily in Starship. Musk previously said the company spent $2 billion this year alone on development.

The company focused on the giant rocket in part because Starship is considered central to Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars. He hopes that one day a fleet of spacecraft can put enough supplies into orbit to transport the first settlers to the red planet.

The rocket is also a big part of SpaceX’s work with NASA. The space agency has awarded contracts worth about $4 billion to SpaceX so it can develop Starship into a lunar lander. NASA plans to use a version of the rocket on some of the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon’s surface, which could begin in 2025.

Finally, Starship plays a very important role in SpaceX’s work closer to Earth. The company’s Starlink satellite internet system is waiting for a major upgrade, but SpaceX’s current rockets aren’t large enough to carry the latest third-generation Starlink satellites into orbit, according to Chris Quilty, president of Quilty Space, a private space analytics company. .

“Not only does Starship development burn a lot of money, but it also hinders their ability to launch these third-generation satellites,” Quilty says.

Whether it works is anyone’s guess

For this test flight, SpaceX hopes to launch from its launch site in Brownsville, Texas. From there, the spacecraft will lift off over the Gulf of Mexico, separate from its heavy booster and enter what McDowell describes as a “marginal orbit” that will send it around the globe. It will then land off the coast of Hawaii.

NASA is paying SpaceX billions of dollars to develop Starship into a lunar lander, but it must first prove itself on Earth.

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NASA is paying SpaceX billions of dollars to develop Starship into a lunar lander, but it must first prove itself on Earth.

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This is the plan on paper. What’s actually happening can look very different.

SpaceX conducted two test launches of the new Super Heavy rocket in August. The first operation, conducted on August 6, ended prematurely after four engines failed to operate properly. The second test, conducted on August 22, was successful, although two engines failed to start for the duration of the six-second test.

In addition, the flight will test the rocket’s “hot stage” separation system for the first time. It remains to be seen whether the spacecraft’s thermal protection system can withstand the harsh heat generated by reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

McDowell says he believes any scenario in which the Starship separates from its booster and continues flying should be considered a success, regardless of what happens to the spacecraft next. But given the difficulty of getting the Raptor’s 33 first-stage engines working properly, he’s not sure it will come to that.

“I think the ignition reliability of the Raptor engines is the biggest question on my mind right now,” he says.

Even if it ends up failing, Quilty believes it won’t have an immediate impact on SpaceX’s business. The company currently dominates the commercial satellite launch market, thanks in part to past innovations, such as a first stage that can land vertically on a barge. “They’re doing quite well without the spacecraft,” he says.

But McDowell adds that given SpaceX’s big ambitions, this giant rocket will have to work sooner or later.

“They need the spacecraft to finally work,” he says. “The big question for me is: How much can they ultimately get away with? How many failures can they tolerate?”

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