SpaceX’s massive Starship set to launch for 1st orbital flight | CBC News

SpaceX’s massive Starship set to launch for 1st orbital flight | CBC News

Another new rocket is ready to take to the skies. This time, it’s SpaceX’s Starship, which will be a critical component of the Artemis III mission that will return humans to the lunar surface.

SpaceX has been working on the rocket for several years, with the goal of using it to take heavier payloads into orbit, to the moon and eventually to Mars. The company’s founder and CEO Elon Musk has also envisioned a version that could ferry people around the world.

After multiple delays, it appears that SpaceX is finally going to blast this rocket for its first orbital mission, potentially on Monday or Tuesday.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of the first orbital launch of Starship.

What is Starship?

When you first take a look at Starship, it may bring to mind the old rockets of the early 1940s and 1950s (Musk himself responded to a tweet in 2019 where one user hinted that the original design of Starship reminded him of that used in The Adventures of Tintin).

It is made up of two stages: the booster stage (called the Super Heavy) and the spaceship itself. Stacked together, they are called Starship, but to make matters more confusing, the spaceship itself is also called Starship.

To date, Starship (the spaceship), has only ever flown to 12.5 kilometres in altitude. Of the four high-altitude test flights, only one has ever successfully landed. The first one — SN8 — slammed into the ground, while the second one — SN10 — landed and then exploded. In March 2021, SN11 also managed a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” as Musk has come to call these explosions.

WATCH | Starship’s SN15 high-altitude flight test:

Finally, on May 5, 2021, SN15 successfully landed. It was the last time any version of Starship ever flew.

While those tests returned Starship to SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, for this test, the first stage will make a landing in the Atlantic Ocean, while the Starship will make splash down in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Hawaii.

The booster for this launch is called Booster 7, and the Starship is SN24.

The Super Heavy rocket has the most engines of any rocket at 33. On Feb. 9, it did a test of the engines, but only 31 ignited.

What is new about this?

Starship is unlike any other vehicle ever launched.

It launches vertically, in two stages, and then the booster stage — like the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket — returns to the launch pad and is caught by arms dubbed “chopsticks.” And, eventually, when the spaceship’s job is done, it, too, returns to the pad. But instead of coming in vertically as the boosters do, the ship will do a “belly flop” throughout most of the atmosphere, before manoeuvring to land in a upright position.

This image shows Starship SN9 spaceship in its bellyflop position as it returns to SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, after a test flight where it reached 10 kilometres in altitude before it crashed and exploded on landing. (SpaceX)

Another unique ability Starship has, is to launch a fuelling spacecraft that will dock with the passenger or cargo spacecraft.

All of this is designed to be reusable.

“Starship is a potentially revolutionary technology in that it’s a super-heavy lift rocket,” said Canadian Jordan Bimm, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago and a space historian. “And it will have the largest launch capacity of any rocket that humans have designed so far. And it has the added additional benefit of potentially being reusable.”

When fully stacked in the two stages, the rocket will be 120 metres tall, bigger than NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will launch astronauts into orbit in 2024 as part of the Artemis II mission.

WATCH | Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen looks ahead to his moon mission:

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen looks ahead to his moon mission

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen sits down with CBC’s Nicole Mortillaro to talk about being chosen for the Artemis II mission, what this means for Canada and what he’s most looking forward to experiencing during the mission.

It will also be the most powerful rocket ever built, also surpassing the lift capability of SLS.

This launch of Starship also marks another first: It will be the first time any spacecraft has launched into orbit from Texas, Bimm noted.

Why is this important?

Musk envisions Starship to have multiple uses.

First, it’s heavy-lift capability of up to 90 to 136 metric tonnes surpasses that of SLS, which can lift with anywhere from 23 to 41 metric tonnes.

That gives it the advantage for missions requiring heavy payloads.

But more than that, Starship will be used as the landing vehicle for NASA’s Artemis III mission that will once again return humans to the surface of the moon.

For that mission, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will lift off from Earth, head to the moon, followed or preceded by Starship. Then, while in a special orbit called a halo orbit, it will unite with Starship, on which the astronauts will transfer and then land on the moon.

An illustration shows a black and white rocket upright on the surface of the moon.
This illustration show’s the SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the moon’s surface during the Artemis III mission. (SpaceX)

“The Starship variant that is supposed to be part of Artemis III — the human landing system — is absolutely critical,” Bimm said. “And if that does not come online in time that Artemis III will either be delayed or it will, it will become another sort of like fly-around-the-moon mission like Artemis II, so [NASA] is quite dependent on SpaceX having its act together and and having this mission be a success.”

Space historian and former NASA illustrator Paul Fjeld questions whether or not Starship’s Human Landing System (HLS) will be ready in time for the Artemis III mission.

“[Musk] has to prove this thing in a way that NASA is comfortable with, which means he has to fly 30 times, 40 times,” he said.

“He has to do the really hard thing with Artemis, which is to get a tanker in orbit, and then launch maybe five fuel re-dumps, then send the actual lunar lander up, dock with it, fill it up with propellant, take off for the moon, do a landing — and that’s the demo. You’ve got to do an [uncrewed] demo, then come back with a whole thing, and go into whatever that halo orbit is, where he would rendezvous in with an Orion spacecraft. And then he’s got to do it again. And he’s got to prove this many, many, many times.”

But Musk has bigger sights set: on Mars.

He has said many times that he wants to make humans “a multi-planetary species.”

He plans to use Starship to carry upward of 100 humans to the Red Planet, and eventually create a human settlement.

When the rocket lifts off — whether it’s next week or not — it will be quite a sight to see and hear, with its 33 Raptor engines propelling the mighty spaceship on its historic first big test. And NASA will likely be paying very close attention.

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