Elon Musk hopes 'fate smiles' on latest Starship rocket test flight

After mixed results with the previous flight, the spacecraft intended to one day carry astronauts to Mars could next launch in May

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SpaceX is hoping to carry out the fourth test flight of its deep-space rocket Starship in early May.

The company has completed three tests in under a year, with the latest on March 14 reaching orbit for the first time, before disintegrating during its return to Earth.

Despite that setback, the flight did achieve milestones. These included Starship's first hypersonic re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, the first test of its ability to open and close its payload door in orbit and the transfer of rocket propellant from one tank to another.

SpaceX is looking to increase the number of flights this year, so that it gets closer to starting commercial operations of the rocket.

“We've made tremendous progress from flight one, two and three, and we got flight four coming up in about a month or so,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said at an event held at the company's Starbase launch facility at Boca Chica in Texas this month.

“And with flight four, if fate smiles upon us, we'll get through the high-heating regime and smash into the ocean at a controlled spot.”

Failed splashdown attempts

Starship is a fully reusable two-stage rocket that consists of the Super Heavy booster and the Starship spacecraft.

In the recent flight test, the booster and spacecraft were meant to splash down in the ocean, but neither did.

All of the booster's engines did not light up, which caused it to lose orientation and carry out a “hard” splashdown.

Then SpaceX lost Starship before it could attempt a splashdown.

Landing on a virtual tower

In the fourth flight test, the company is hoping to land the Super Heavy booster on a virtual tower in the Gulf of Mexico – a targeted spot using a controlled landing, so it is able to touch down on a specific point in future flights.

After that is achieved, SpaceX would attempt to land the booster at Starbase.

“I don't want to tempt fate … but I think the odds of actually catching the booster with the tower – probably like 80 to 90 per cent this year,” Mr Musk said.

He also wants to carry out two consecutive, controlled splashdowns of a Starship spacecraft before they can reuse it for a flight.

SpaceX is planning to develop another six boosters and spacecraft this year to help increase the launch rate of Starship.

“Ultimately, we'll need to build a lot more ships than boosters, especially for Mars,” Mr Musk said.

“Because you'll actually want to take apart the ship and use it for raw materials on Mars.

“Most of the ships you wouldn't want to bring back, you'd want to just use them for raw materials.

“Eventually, we will want to bring ships back, and I think we want to give people the option of coming back because they're more likely to want to go if there's some option of coming back.”

Seats already sold on Starship

Mr Musk is developing the rocket in an attempt to eventually send people to Mars and help humans become a multi-planetary species.

However, he has more immediate commitments with Starship, including a $2.89 billion contract with Nasa to land humans on the Moon.

Starship was selected for the Artemis 3 mission, in which astronauts will attempt a lunar landing in 2026. If successful, it would be the first time people have set foot on the Moon since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

Mr Musk has already sold seats on the Starship, including to the Japanese billionaire entrepreneur and art collector Yusaku Maezawa, who plans to be on board the first crewed flight to the Moon, taking eight artists with him as part of his dearMoon programme.

US billionaire Jared Isaacman is also working with SpaceX through his Polaris programme, a series of privately led space missions.

Mr Isaacman will serve as commander on the Polaris III mission, the first crewed orbital flight on the Starship rocket.

Updated: May 08, 2024, 8:17 AM