Starship’s first space launch

After years of development, today SpaceX’s giant rocket will try to traverse the Earth’s atmosphere: one day it will try to reach the Moon and possibly Mars

to Emmanuel Minetti

After two o’clock in the afternoon (Italian time), the American private space company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, will try to reach space for the first time with a huge spaceship. The test will validate the capability of the launch system, which includes the most powerful rocket ever built in the history of space exploration. There are many doubts about the outcome of the experiment: the launch could be delayed due to technical or weather problems, or it could end earlier than expected with a big bang. Still, the test is considered necessary to demonstrate the capabilities of the spacecraft, which will need to be used for the first moon landings of the Artemis lunar program and one day to transport the first humans to Mars, perhaps.

The launch is scheduled from Boca Chica, a small town in Texas just a few kilometers off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. SpaceX built the Starbase there, that is, the development of the Starship and the launch base, and the construction of new buildings and hangars starting in 2014. Also in the region, in recent years, SpaceX has conducted tests of some experimental versions of its spacecraft, including large explosions and one successful attempt to return the vehicle entire satellite to Earth.

Testing began with the first starship models in March 2019, with models progressively larger and resembling the final version of the spaceship, similar to those of Tintin in the comic. Thematic moon. The spacecraft is 50 meters high, about the size of a 15-storey building, and about 9 meters in diameter, with a conical tip vaguely reminiscent of the tip of space shuttles. It uses six liquid oxygen and liquid methane engines. In SpaceX’s intentions, inside the Starship’s large satellites, space station modules and crews traveling to the Moon or Mars could be transported.

One of the versions of the Starship heading to the launch pad in July 2022 (SpaceX)

The spacecraft alone weighs 100 tons, that is, it becomes 1300 with the addition of propellant, and therefore it needs a strong thrust to overcome the Earth’s atmosphere and reach space. The initial engine is provided by the Super Heavy, a nearly 70-meter-tall rocket with 33 engines, always powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane. The launcher propels the Starship beyond the atmosphere, then maneuvers back to Earth as it already did by the Falcon 9 rockets that SpaceX used some time ago to ferry satellites into orbit and crews to the International Space Station.

In the nearly twenty years of its existence, SpaceX has perfected a system to make Falcon 9s partially reusable, rather than having to build new systems for each launch like its competitors, which greatly reduces the costs of space launches and makes them more frequent. With Starship, the company wants to take the next step: having a fully reusable launch system. Even a Starship, such as the Super Heavy, would have the ability to return to Earth with a controlled landing, refuel and return to space as airplanes do. It’s a very ambitious goal and that’s why today’s test is so important.

Between Saturday and Sunday, SpaceX performed final checks and put the Starship and Super Heavy into their final configuration, with the spacecraft atop the launch pad. Together, they reach nearly 120 meters in height and can be seen from miles away in the Boca Chica area. The launch pad itself is strange: in addition to being huge, it has two large mechanical arms that will be used in the future to block the launch system when it returns to Earth. Unofficially it is called “Mechazilla”, which is similar to Mechagodzilla, the massive robot used to defend Japan in many fictional works about Godzilla. The mechanical arms are often called “chopsticks,” because one day they will pinch return rockets a bit like a spring roll.

Super Heavy, the large metal cylinder at the bottom, is attached to Mechazilla’s Starship with its two mechanical arms (SpaceX)

For today’s launch, Mechazilla will still only be used to leave Starship and Super Heavy, but not to recover which was not anticipated in this first test. SpaceX will ignite the Super Heavy 33 engines shortly after two in the afternoon, and the massive rocket will propel Starship for three minutes, burning thousands of tons of propellant in its tanks, before separating from the rest of the spacecraft and returning to Earth, to make a controlled landing. which will take you to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and a convenient distance from Boca Chica. The Super Heavy will sink and not be reused: future versions will instead return to the launch pad for further use.

The separation is necessary because once the superheavy fuel is exhausted, it will become useless ballast for the rest of the spacecraft. This is why rockets generally lose their segments (“stages”) as they climb into the space environment.

After separation, the Starship will start its engines and propel itself out of the Earth’s atmosphere to a speed just below the speed that would allow it to enter orbit to begin orbiting the Earth. Just under ten minutes after launch, the spacecraft will shut down its engines and propel itself to an altitude of 230 kilometers. The mission plan doesn’t require the Starship to make a full orbit: When in sight of the Hawaiian Islands, it will maneuver to re-enter the atmosphere and dive into the Pacific Ocean.

Re-entry will be one of the critical testing operations, because it will be used to verify the tightness and effectiveness of the insulating tiles that make up the Starship’s heat shield. Without it, the spacecraft would not be able to withstand the high temperatures that develop while traveling at high speed through the atmosphere. The insulation’s tiling is similar to that used on the space shuttles, but with some new features to reduce the risk of fires and malfunctions that previously affected those spacecraft.

Overall, the test will validate the Super Heavy separation system from the Starship and the spacecraft’s ability to access the space environment, perform a close orbital flight, and then pass atmospheric reentry. The launch will also be important for checking the Super Heavy systems, which have never been launched before and are perhaps one of the biggest unknowns of the entire test.

The large rocket uses 33 engines that are controlled by thousands of sensors, as a result of which problems and unexpected events may appear on some on-board systems before launch. The previously performed engine ignition test did not result in unforeseen events, but this does not exclude the possibility that something may have gone wrong in the last checks close to launch. Weather conditions, particularly with regard to high-altitude winds, may also make it necessary to postpone the launch. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has estimated that there is a 50 percent chance of success, but according to many observers, he likely kept his generally optimistic estimates lower than usual so as not to create too much expectation.

In the past, Musk has on several occasions promised an imminent orbital flight from the spacecraft, without this ever happening afterward. In addition to unforeseen technical events, last year there were some bureaucratic problems obtaining permits from the US government for experimental tests. The Federal Aviation Administration, a government agency that handles civil aviation in the United States, has pointed out several activity To reduce the impact of the tests, also from an environmental point of view. SpaceX followed the indications and finally received the five-year authorization on April 14th.

Launch pad at Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, USA (SpaceX)

The pressure on SpaceX is very high, especially because of the high expectations NASA is placing on the new launch system. The US space agency has awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop the Starship as a lunar lander transport vehicle, starting with the Artemis 3 mission scheduled for no later than the end of 2025. Before that, the entire launch system will have to prove it. Not only is it completely reusable, but it is also safe and reliable for human transmission.

SpaceX intends to test all of the systems several times in the coming years with missions to carry materials into orbit, starting with the Starlink satellites, which are used to provide internet connections from space to areas of the Earth that cannot be reached by fiber-optic cables or satellites. . In the SpaceX programs, there is also the use of the Starship as a spaceship to complete a circumnavigation of the Moon, without access to the lunar soil, in which ordinary passengers and non-professional astronauts will participate.

When the Starship proves reliable, SpaceX will test a different type of system that involves refueling spacecraft in orbit, in order to get enough propellant to get to Mars. Musk has long argued that the human race should become “multiplanetary” and should therefore establish a colony on Mars. Although he has made his plans clear on several occasions, the program to achieve this goal is still somewhat vague and should be specified, if at all possible. Even that plan will depend on how things go today.

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Maggie Benson

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