Aerospace & Defence

Elon Musk SpaceX Starship's second test flight

24th November 2023
Harry Fowle

SpaceX's ambitious Starship vehicle reached space on its second integrated test flight on 18th November, but encountered a significant disruption in its ascent.

Despite successfully showcasing the performance of its booster and a novel stage separation technique, the vehicle ultimately broke apart.

The launch, which took place at approximately 8:03 a.m. Eastern from SpaceX’s Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas, was slightly delayed due to a "late pressurisation" issue with the upper stage. Nonetheless, no other countdown complications were reported. The Super Heavy booster, powering the flight, appeared to function as expected during the ascent. This smooth performance contrasted with the vehicle's first flight in April, where several Raptor engines had prematurely shut down.

A key highlight of this flight was the testing of a new "hot staging" technique. Approximately 2 minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, Starship ignited its six engines and successfully separated from the booster, demonstrating this technique where engine ignition occurs prior to stage separation.

However, the flight encountered a major issue about 3 minutes and 30 seconds after liftoff. The Super Heavy booster unexpectedly disintegrated in what SpaceX described as a "rapid unscheduled disassembly." The exact cause of this incident was not immediately clear. During the launch webcast, SpaceX hosts mentioned that testing the booster's resilience to the stresses from hot staging was a key objective of the flight.

Despite the booster’s breakup, the Starship continued its ascent. It was scheduled for an engine cutoff eight and a half minutes after liftoff, but near the end of its burn, the vehicle lost contact. At that moment, Starship was at an altitude of 148 kilometres and travelling at over 24,000 kilometres per hour, almost reaching orbital velocity. John Insprucker, principal integration engineer at SpaceX, stated on the webcast, "We think we may have lost the second stage." He also noted that the automated flight termination system was activated "very late in the burn," but did not provide a specific reason for this action.

The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed the mishap, ensuring no injuries or damage occurred, which was expected given the location of the booster and ship breakups. The FAA announced that it would oversee a SpaceX-led investigation into the incident, as is standard for launch failures.

This test flight’s objective was not to achieve orbit but to perform nearly one orbit of Earth, with a planned splashdown near Hawaii 90 minutes post-liftoff. Although the mission did not go as planned, it marked significant progress compared to the first test flight in April. That launch had ended prematurely when the vehicle's flight termination system destroyed the rocket due to a series of malfunctions. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk had attributed the first flight's problems to the use of a mix of older engines in the booster.

Following the first flight, Musk revealed that SpaceX had implemented "well over a thousand" changes to the vehicle. These modifications ranged from rectifying issues that led to the initial failure to adopting the hot staging approach. Ground infrastructure improvements were also a focus, particularly after the Super Heavy's Raptor engines caused extensive damage during the first launch, affecting areas up to 10 kilometres from the pad. A water deluge system was installed to protect the concrete pad, requiring an environmental review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which delayed the Federal Aviation Administration's launch license update until 15th November.

Starship is integral to the future plans of both SpaceX and NASA. For SpaceX, Starship is envisioned as a key launch vehicle for payloads such as the full-sized V2 Starlink satellites. NASA, on the other hand, has awarded SpaceX contracts valued at $4 billion to develop a lunar lander variant of Starship for the Artemis lunar exploration campaign, including crewed moon landings for the Artemis 3 and 4 missions.

NASA officials, speaking at a 17th November meeting of an advisory committee, noted their intent to closely observe the launch. They acknowledged that a single lunar lander mission would require a significant number of Starship/Super Heavy launches, both for the lander itself and for propellant delivery to a depot in Earth orbit.

Following the launch, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson praised the effort in a social media post, stating, “Today’s test is an opportunity to learn—then fly again.” Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, also commented on the significance of the test, expressing anticipation for what could be learned to advance the Artemis III Starship human landing system.

Product Spotlight

Upcoming Events

View all events
Latest global electronics news
© Copyright 2024 Electronic Specifier