Surviving the reentry is the main goal of SpaceX’s fourth Starship test flight

SpaceX's fourth full-scale Starship rocket will undergo a refueling test on Monday.
Enlarge / SpaceX’s fourth full-scale Starship rocket will undergo a refueling test on Monday.

After three test flights, SpaceX has demonstrated that the world’s most powerful rocket can reach space. Now engineers must prove that the company’s next-generation Starship vehicle can make it home again.

This will be the central objective for the fourth Starship test flight, which could take place as early as early June, said Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX.

“Starship Flight 4 in about two weeks,” Musk posted on X, his social media platform, after a Starship countdown rehearsal Monday at the Starship launch pad in South Texas. “The primary goal is to achieve maximum re-entry heating.”

Almost ready to fly

With the workout countdown on Monday, SpaceX has completed one of the last major tests on the next Starship rocket before it’s ready to fly. The SpaceX launch team loaded more than 10 million pounds of supercold methane and liquid oxygen into the upper stage of the Super Heavy booster and the Starship.

The nearly 400-foot (121-meter) tall rocket was fully stacked onto its launch pad for the countdown rehearsal, which ended as planned before the ignition of the booster’s 33 Raptor engines. SpaceX then drained the rocket’s cryogenic propellants and ground teams removed the Starship’s upper stage from the booster on Tuesday for more work on the ship’s heat shield. A few days before launch, SpaceX will install the rocket’s self-destruct mechanism, which would be used to destroy the vehicle if it flies off course and threatens populated areas.

These are the last major tasks for the team at SpaceX’s Starbase facility before Starship is ready to take off for its fourth test flight. SpaceX is also awaiting a commercial launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is overseeing SpaceX’s internal review of the previous Starship test flight in March.

The FAA classified the outcome of that flight as an accident because the spaceship lost control and disintegrated during reentry before it could make a purposeful, intact landing in the Indian Ocean. For SpaceX, the March flight was a resounding success. It was the first time a Starship test flight reached near-orbit speed, with complete burns of all 39 Raptor engines on the rocket’s first and second stages.

After the first and second Starship test flights last year, the FAA withheld a launch license for the next flight until regulators could review all the results of SpaceX’s investigation into what went wrong on the previous mission. The FAA is responsible for ensuring that commercial space launches do not endanger the public.

Thirty-three engines were fired to propel the Super Heavy booster and Starship rocket into the air during its second test flight in November 2023.
Enlarge / Thirty-three engines were fired to propel the Super Heavy booster and Starship rocket into the air during its second test flight in November 2023.

Stephen Clark / Ars Technica

Last week, an FAA spokesperson said SpaceX had asked regulators to approve the next Starship launch before the formal conclusion of the accident investigation into the test flight in March. Instead, SpaceX asked the FAA to approve the next launch after determining that the events of the previous flight did not endanger the public. This could speed up the permitting process.

“If the FAA agrees that there are no public safety concerns involved in the accident, the operator may return to flight while the accident investigation is ongoing, provided all other licensing requirements are met,” the spokesperson said from the FAA.

SpaceX is already testing hardware for several rockets that will fly later this year, allowing the company to ramp up the launch of the Starship. The company is also building a second launch pad in Texas and planning two Starship launch sites in Florida to support faster launch frequency.

But there’s a lot more SpaceX needs to sort out with the Starship design before it becomes operational.

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