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

Zoom in / SpaceX’s fourth large-scale Starship rocket undergoes a fueling test on Monday.

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

This will be the main goal of the spacecraft’s fourth test flight, which could take place in early June, according to Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX.

“Starship 4 flight in about two weeks.” Musk Published on X, his social media platform, after a Starship countdown rehearsal on Monday at the Starship launch site in South Texas. “The primary goal is to get maximum heat return.”

Almost ready to fly

With a training countdown on Monday, SpaceX completed one of the final major tests on its next Starship rocket before it is ready to fly. The SpaceX launch team loaded more than 10 million pounds of ultra-cold methane and liquid oxygen fuel into the upper stage of the Super Heavy booster and the Starship’s upper stage.

The 400-foot (121 m) rocket was fully positioned on the launch pad for a countdown rehearsal, which ended, as planned, before the rocket’s 33 Raptor engines ignited. SpaceX then drained the cryogenic propellant from the rocket, and ground teams removed the spacecraft’s upper stage from the booster on Tuesday to further work on the ship’s heat shield. A few days before the launch, SpaceX will install the self-destruct mechanism of the rocket, which will be used to destroy the vehicle if it deviated from its course and threatened populated areas.

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

The Federal Aviation Administration classified the outcome of that flight as a mishap because the spacecraft lost control and disintegrated during reentry before it could make a proper targeted landing in the Indian Ocean. For SpaceX, the March flight was a huge success. This was the first time a Starship test flight had reached near orbital speed, with a full-duration burn of all 39 Raptor engines in the rocket’s first and second stages.

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

Thirty-three engines to power the Super Heavy rocket and the Starship rocket were launched into the sky for its second test flight in November 2023.
Zoom in / Thirty-three engines to power the Super Heavy rocket and the Starship rocket were launched into the sky for its second test flight in November 2023.

Stephen Clark/Ars Technica

Last week, an FAA spokesperson said SpaceX had asked regulators to approve the launch of the upcoming spacecraft before officially concluding an investigation into the mishap on the test flight in March. Instead, SpaceX asked the Federal Aviation Administration to approve the next launch after determining that the events of the previous flight did not endanger the public. This may speed up the licensing process.

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“If the FAA agrees that there are no public safety issues in the accident, the operator may return to flight while the accident investigation remains open, provided all other licensing requirements are met,” the FAA spokesperson said.

SpaceX is already testing hardware for several rockets scheduled to launch later this year, enabling the company to ramp up its Starship launches. The company is also building a second launch pad in Texas and is planning two Starship launch sites in Florida to support a faster launch cadence.

But there’s a lot SpaceX needs to accomplish with the Starship design before it’s operational.

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