Starship and Super Heavy are ready for a second test flight in 2023. November 15 Image: Will Robinson-Smith/Spaceflight Now. SpaceX’s massive Super Heavy-Starship rocket was cleared for its second test flight on Friday, aiming to launch the Starship’s unmanned upper stage into space for the first time, the company announced Wednesday.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday granted SpaceX the necessary launch license, clearing the way for liftoff nearly seven months after the rocket suffered multiple malfunctions and exploded on its first flight in April.
Since then, SpaceX has implemented what company founder Elon Musk said were “well” more than 1,000 upgrades and improvements, and made 63 FAA-mandated “fixes” to improve flight safety and performance.
“The (launch) license is valid for all phases of the proposed operation,” the FAA said in a statement. “After consulting with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and evaluating in writing the 2022 programmatic environmental assessment, the FAA concluded that there are no significant environmental changes.
The Super Heavy is scheduled to lift off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica Flight Test Facility on the Texas Gulf Coast at 8 a.m. Friday. EST, opening a two-hour window.
The goal of the flight is to send the Starship on a meandering trajectory around the planet before returning to the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii.
At 30 feet wide, the Super Heavy-Starship is the largest, most powerful rocket ever built, standing 397 feet tall and weighing more than 11 million pounds.
The Raptor’s 33 engines in the Super Heavy’s first stage can generate 16 million pounds of thrust at full throttle — about twice that of NASA’s Space Launch System’s lunar rocket, currently the world’s most powerful.
A successful flight test would be a major milestone for both SpaceX and NASA, which is spending billions on a version of the Starship upper stage to carry Artemis astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface.
SpaceX hopes the rocket will greatly expand its Starlink constellation of Internet satellites and enable possible low-cost government and commercial flights to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
The launch tower sticks lift the Starship into position during the loading operation. Image: Will Robinson-Smith/Spaceflight Now. It will take several test flights to demonstrate the reliability needed for astronaut flights, but it’s not yet clear how long that might take.
During the first flight, the launch pad of the Super Heavy-Starship was badly damaged. It has since been beefed up and equipped with a powerful water flooding system to help reduce the acoustic shock of the engine’s ignition.
A new “hot stop” technique was implemented to start firing the Starship’s upper stage’s six Raptor engines while they were still attached to the Super Heavy’s first stage. The traditional technique of igniting the engine after separation did not work properly on the first flight.
The Super Heavy was also equipped with a more robust electronic steering system to move the engine nozzles to maintain the correct trajectory. In addition, the missile’s self-destruct system has been updated so that it can act quickly when needed.
The new staging system will be tested about two minutes and 40 seconds after liftoff, when the first stage’s engines begin to shut down after lifting the rocket out of the dense lower atmosphere.
Six of the Starship’s Raptors will ignite while the upper stage is still attached to the booster, using a new ventilation system to divert exhaust from the first stage. The Starship should separate from the Super Heavy momentarily and continue its ascent into space.
Although designed to be fully reusable, the first stage of the Super Heavy will not be rebuilt. Instead, it will fire rockets to slow it down as if it were heading for a landing pad, but will fall into the Gulf of Mexico first.
Meanwhile, the Starship’s engines will continue to fire for another five minutes. It is then expected to circle the planet and fall back into the observable atmosphere about an hour and 20 minutes after launch.
Like the first stage, the Starship is designed to be reusable, but no recovery is planned for this initial test flight. The trajectory will take the Starship to impact the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii.
As SpaceX sums up the countdown on the company’s website: “Thrills guaranteed.”