Understanding Starship’s second test flight

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket is launched from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. November 18, 2023. 

Joe Skipper | Reuters

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Overview: This is a test

In one sense, we’re now two weeks (and a holiday breather) on from SpaceX’s most recent test flight of a Starship prototype. In another sense, the test is ongoing and we’re still in the middle of a massive research and development effort. 

One thing is clear: Starship is a spectacle. The rocket is a 40-story skyscraper, producing unprecedented amounts of power, and launching a few miles away from the viewing public. And, in addition to the company’s own livestreams of the launches, enthusiasts broadcast around the clock views of SpaceX’s activities in South Texas for thousands to online parse the movement of equipment and rocket parts.

The extremely public display, as well as SpaceX’s polarizing owner, is a double-edged sword for understanding Starship test flights. The dramatic views of the launch get people excited about Starship’s potential, but at the same time they open the company up to criticism. 

One person’s “glorious success” is another person’s “massive failure.” Few call the Starship launches what they are: research.

SpaceX repeatedly emphasizes the “test” aspect of these flights and, indeed, from the R&D perspective of making progress, there were a number of successes: All 39 Raptor engines worked, the ground infrastructure seems to be in good shape, the “hot-staging” separation process meant the second flight made it further than the first, the rocket reached space, and the flight termination system (a.k.a., onboard safety method to intentionally self-destruct) appeared to trigger much more quickly than before.

Important steps forward, sure. Next stop, Mars? No.

Starship failed to complete the test mission’s profile by splashing down off the coast of Hawaii, falling short of a lower bar than even the most low-risk Falcon 9 launches for SpaceX. Starship’s booster ripped apart shortly after separation, and Starship itself was destroyed because it was underperforming – or, in SpaceX’s words, “a safe command destruct was appropriately triggered based on available vehicle performance data.”

Not great, given the flight time was only a fraction of the planned mission, but not the setback that images of a distant fireball may have you believe.

Readers, especially space enthusiasts, love to hear estimates of when Starship is going to land on the moon or send people to Mars. But the unfortunate truth is that those timelines are aspirational when talking about missions that rely on technology that’s firmly in the R&D stage. That’s a big reason why I regularly emphasize the comments by SpaceX leadership that Starship won’t be flying people until after completing “hundreds” of successful flights. 

Starship needs to get to orbit, deliver satellites, demonstrate orbital refueling, safely re-enter the atmosphere and more before I start taking announcements like “landing cargo on the moon by so-and-so year” seriously, let alone fly people. In the middle of all those technological advancements, government regulators face allegations that SpaceX is moving too fast and breaking things, as well as criticism from the company that federal licenses aren’t getting approved quickly enough.

There are plenty of ways to read the tea leaves for how quickly the Starship program will play out. You can chart the momentum of Falcon 9 launches over the past 13 years and assume a similar trajectory for Starship. Or you could extrapolate the lag between initial estimates of when Starship would be ready to launch again (as early as June) to when it actually was ready to get back off the ground (October). 

The reality is that Starship is still firmly in the R&D stage. Any purported timelines aren’t nearly as firm.

What’s up

  • U.S. and China continued to dominate the world’s rocket launches in Q3 with 32 and 20, respectively. Russia and India conducted a distant four and three orbital launches, respectively, during the third quarter. – BryceTech
  • White House says the U.S. government would be ‘foolish to walk away from’ SpaceX innovation: Despite the White House condemning CEO Elon Musk’s recent comments, National Security Counsel spokesman John Kirby said the federal government is not planning to withdraw any contracts to Musk’s company. – CNBC
  • Elon Musk and Israel reach agreement over use of Starlink in Gaza, with the SpaceX CEO having previously proposed using the satellite communications system in the region. Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi reportedly said the agreement with Musk means Starlink can only be operated in Israel and Gaza with Israeli approval. – Reuters
  • China shows off Tiangong space station in new photos that give a clear look at the orbiting habitat and its three modules. – Ars Technica
  • NASA chief Nelson tours India and the UAE, holding meetings with his government counterparts to discuss further space cooperation. – NASA
  • York and SDA announce successful demo of Link 16 connectivity with PWSA satellites, with the Space Development Agency saying the company’s satellites launched earlier this year as part of Tranche 0 in the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture completed the technical milestone in a recent demonstration. – SDA / York
  • NASA pauses Hubble science operations due to gyroscope problem, noting that the telescope’s instruments are “stable” and “in good health.” The spacecraft has gone in and out of “safe mode” due to an unstable gyroscope. – NASA
  • Firefly to launch next mission for Lockheed Martin, preparing its Alpha rocket to launch as soon as December. – Firefly / Lockheed Martin
  • The Mars horizon captured from orbit: NASA’s Odyssey orbiter, which has been circling the red planet for more than two decades, captured a detailed view of Mars from a similar vantage point of photos captured by astronauts on the International Space Station. – NASA
  • Ariane 6 rocket targeting mid-2024 launch, the European Space Agency said, after passing a key, seven-minute test firing of the vehicle’s Vulcain 2.1 engine. ESA says the launch is aimed for between June 15 and July 31. – SpaceNews
  • North Korea launches first spy satellite into orbit after two previously failed launches. – New York Times
  • Firefly test fires Miranda rocket engine as the company works toward the first launches of Northrop Grumman’s Antares 330 and MLV rockets. – Firefly
  • Satellogic to build satellites in India through Tata deal, with the satellite imagery company to help Tata Advanced Systems Limited manufacture satellites for the country’s government and commercial use. – Satellogic
  • NASA postponed Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan by a year, citing “incredibly large uncertainties” in upcoming annual budgets. – SpaceNews

Industry maneuvers

  • SpaceX acquired parachute maker Pioneer for $2.2 million in bankruptcy deal. The company served as the supplier of the drogue parachutes for SpaceX’s Dragon capsules. The Information
  • UK Space Agency invests $59 million in 12 space projects, with the United Kingdom agency’s funding also matched by the private sector for a variety of research and development projects. – Via Satellite
  • Rocket Lab adds Maryland facility for producing composite parts, a 113,000-square-foot former Lockheed Martin complex that will build space structures including spacecraft buses, satellite dispensers and more. – Rocket Lab
  • MDA to expand in the UK: The Canadian space company aims to double its workforce in the United Kingdom to 150 by the end of next year, having acquired a division of satellite communications equipment maker SatixFy earlier this year. – MDA
  • Satellogic granted NOAA license key to U.S. expansion: In support of the company’s plan to redomicile in the U.S. next year, the NOAA license followed a review of Satellogic’s “national security, foreign policy, and U.S. international risks and obligations.” – Satellogic
  • Amazon announces AWS ‘private connectivity’ plan through Kuiper, saying the company’s coming satellite internet service will allow enterprise and government customers to “to move data privately from a remote location directly into AWS without ever touching the public internet.” The company will pilot the service through early Kuiper partners Verizon, Vodafone and Japan’s NTT. – Amazon
  • Loft Orbital advertising virtual satellite missions that offer customers the ability to deploy and test software applications on the company’s spacecraft. – Loft

Market movers

  • Astra raises $2.7 million in additional debt, from recent creditors JMCM and ACME Ventures, as well as cofounders Chris Kemp and Adam London. The company’s board has yet to publicly address the take-private proposal Kemp and London made earlier this month. – Astra
  • Terran Orbital sues former CTO Austin Williams, alleging the former executive damaged the company along with an unspecified number of others. Williams was among the shareholders who recently called for leadership changes at Terran, and William’s lawyer said in a statement that the company’s lawsuit “has no merit.” – TechCrunch

Boldly going

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On the horizon

  • Dec. 1: Virtual meeting of the National Space Council’s UAG (Users Advisory Group).
  • Dec. 1: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches 425 Project Flight 1 for South Korea from California.
  • Dec. 1: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.
  • Dec. 5: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.

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