Monday, April 15, 2024

Is SpaceX’s latest Starship launch a ‘great stride’ in space? Key takeaways | Space News

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX has successfully carried out the longest test flight of its massive Starship rocket, but it disintegrated on its return to Earth. The module was destroyed while approaching its landing point in the Indian Ocean.

Here are the highlights of the Starship rocket and Thursday’s launch by the United States company:

Starship and the milestones it achieved on this flight

The test flight was the third for Musk and SpaceX, and its Starship rocket travelled halfway around the Earth before it re-entered the atmosphere.

The rocket, which consists of a spacecraft also called Starship, and a rocket booster known as the Super Heavy took off from SpaceX’s private Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, at 8:25am (13:25 GMT).

The rocket successfully opened and closed its payload doors while in orbit, performed the transfer of super-cooled rocket propellant from one fuel tank to another and executed a flip manoeuvre with its Super Heavy booster to initiate its return to Earth. These accomplishments have the potential to revolutionise space transportation and support NASA’s mission to send astronauts back to the moon, analysts said.

Forty-five minutes after the launch, Starship started its descent into Earth’s atmosphere, heading towards splashdown in the Indian Ocean.

Starship reached an altitude of more than 200km (125 miles) as it coasted across the Atlantic and South Africa before approaching the Indian Ocean.

At about the 49-minute mark, communication with Starship ended, and SpaceX confirmed that the rocket had not survived re-entry, likely disintegrating and descending into the ocean.

According to Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, one of the objectives of these initial flights was to get Starship to orbital velocities, which are about 28,000 kilometres per hour (17,500 miles per hour). Starship hit its orbital speed target goal.

This particular flight was not, by design, intended to make it all the way around the Earth. The ascent was smooth.

Super Heavy booster

As the launch commenced, the Super Heavy booster came to life and propelled the rocket over the Gulf of Mexico.

The booster was expected to help the rocket make a controlled landing in the ocean, but “it didn’t light all the engines that we expected, and we did lose the booster,” SpaceX spokesperson Dan Huot said.

“We’ll have to go through the data to figure out exactly what happened,” he added.

But it accomplished what previous Super Heavy boosters had not been able to achieve. In two previous attempts, the Super Heavy booster was destroyed midair before it could even attempt landing manoeuvres.

Communication with Starship was lost shortly after a live video feed captured high-definition images from a camera mounted on the vehicle. The footage revealed a reddish glow enveloping the silvery spacecraft, caused by the intense friction of re-entry as it descended towards Earth. SpaceX officials said they aim to conduct at least six more test flights of Starship this year.

According to experts, despite hiccups, SpaceX is making remarkable progress towards its goals.

“SpaceX is 22 years old today. The company announced its plans for Starship in 2015. This is the third in-flight test for this rocket system in less than a year, so they are definitely making very big strides towards that goal,” Amy Lynn Thompson, a Florida-based space and science journalist, told Al Jazeera.

Artemis programme

NASA wants to use Starship to put astronauts back on the moon for the first time in more than 50 years as part of its Artemis programme. In 2021, the US space agency awarded SpaceX a $2.89bn contract for this mission, followed by an additional $1bn agreement.

SpaceX has also set itself the goal of getting humans to Mars. One of SpaceX’s stated primary aims is to establish humans as a multiplanet species as a precaution in case Earth becomes uninhabitable.

“We are trying to build something that is capable of creating a permanent base on the moon and a city on Mars. That’s why it [Starship] is so large,”  Musk said in October.

“Otherwise, we can make it much smaller,” he added.

The powerful rocket can lift five times as much material into space as the next largest available craft. According to the SpaceX plan, Starship could carry 100 people into orbit at once. The maximum number of people ever to have been in space simultaneously has been 20, recorded for a brief moment in January.

SpaceX aims to make both the vehicle’s lower rocket booster and the upper spacecraft stage capable of flying over and over again. The reusability provides SpaceX with the opportunity to reduce the costs of launching satellites as well as transporting people and the necessary resources for sustaining life in space.

“With each flight test, SpaceX attempts increasingly ambitious objectives for Starship to learn as much as possible for future mission systems development. The ability to test key systems and processes in flight scenarios like these integrated tests allows both NASA and SpaceX to gather crucial data needed for the continued development of Starship HLS,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, programme manager for the Human Landing System project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

How have others reacted?

Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, congratulated SpaceX on what he called a “successful test flight”.

SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, celebrated the achievement on X while providing a summary of what was achieved.

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin congratulated SpaceX. Bezos and Musk are space industry rivals.



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