Elon Musk's SpaceX prepares Starship for next test flight in '3 to 5 weeks'

The billionaire said the fourth flight test could be in three to five weeks

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SpaceX is looking to make critical improvements to its Mars rocket Starship before its fourth test flight next month.

The two-stage reusable rocket, which consists of the Super Heavy Booster and the Starship spacecraft, reached orbit for the first time during its third test flight in March.

Engineers were also able to show Starship can perform a hypersonic re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, although it ultimately failed as neither the booster nor spacecraft splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico.

They also proved that Starship can open and close its payload door in orbit.

SpaceX carries out the flights from its Starbase launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas.

Founder Elon Musk said Starship was preparing for its next flight, which would “probably” be in three to five weeks.

“Objective is for the ship to get past max heating or at least further than last time,” the billionaire wrote on X.

Proving Starship can reach orbit, deploy payloads and splash down safely back to Earth would help the company move a step closer to starting commercial operations using the powerful rocket.

Max heating

Max heating is when the spacecraft experiences its highest thermal loads, or intense heat, during re-entry.

As Starship re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds, friction with atmospheric particles heats the surface of the spacecraft.

Showing that the craft can handle maximum dynamic pressure would prove that it has reliable thermal protection systems.

Starship has more than 18,000 hexagonal heat shield tiles to protect it during re-entry, and SpaceX is likely to carry out improvements to help it survive the extreme temperatures next time.

When the heat shield fails, other parts of the craft can also suffer, including its structural integrity, with possible sensor and system failures and compromised engine performance.

Booster performance

The Super Heavy Booster failed to splash down in March, but it performed significantly better than the first two test flights, in April and November last year.

All of its 33 Raptor engines stayed lit as the Starship spacecraft separated from the booster to accelerate to orbit.

After separation, the booster completed its flip manoeuvre, a critical stage in which the rocket reorients itself for a controlled descent to land.

Ultimately, SpaceX plans to make the Super Heavy Booster reusable and for it to land it on the ground (similar to its Falcon boosters), but for test flights, it carries out a splashdown in the ocean.

It also completed a boostback burn, when the rocket fires its engines to adjust its trajectory and reverse course towards the splashdown site.

Several engines managed to light up during this burn, but it did not complete the splashdown, with a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” or explosion, 462 metres above the Gulf of Mexico.

Three test flights in under a year

However, SpaceX has made significant progress in the development of Starship, completing three test flights in under a year.

It managed to complete a unique technique called hot-staging, in which the spacecraft's engines ignite even before separating from the Super Heavy Booster.

This helps reduce the time and altitude lost between stage separations, ultimately enhancing the vehicle's efficiency in reaching orbit.

SpaceX launches most successful Starship test yet

SpaceX launches most successful Starship test yet

The tests have been instrumental in improving the synchronisation of Starship with the Super Heavy Booster, ensuring that the complex systems operate in harmony during critical phases of the flight.

Testing the rocket is also helping engineers to gather more data on its performance, so they can make the necessary adjustments and improve safety and reliability.

SpaceX has 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 will be the first time people have set foot on the Moon since the final Apollo mission in 1972.

Seats are already sold, including to the Japanese billionaire entrepreneur and art collector Yusaku Maezawa, who plans to take eight artists with him as part of his dearMoon project.

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

Mr Musk's ultimate goal is to make life multiplanetary and he hopes to land humans on Mars using his Starship fleets.

“SpaceX’s mission is to extend consciousness to Mars and then the stars,” he posted on X on Monday.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 2:28 PM