SpaceX, the aerospace transportation company, has filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission for the first orbital test flight of its Starship rocket system.
This is a precursor to sending the first humans to the Moon since the Apollo missions of the 1970s, and even Mars, if things work out.
Starship’s Super Heavy booster, a gigantic 230-foot rocket stage, will help it take off from SpaceX’s facilities in South Texas. “The Booster stage will separate approximately 170 seconds into flight,” the document reads. “The Booster will then perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore.”
Starship will then continue on to fly between the Florida Straits, go orbital, and make a “powered, targeted landing” about 62 miles off the northwest coast of Kauai in a “soft ocean landing.”
SpaceX says in the document, “SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally.” The flight data gleaned from Starship’s test “will anchor any changes in vehicle design… and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations,” SpaceX said.
The document didn’t state any specific date for Starship’s orbital flight. CEO Elon Musk and SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell have said it could happen by the end of 2021, but earlier indications by the company have set early 2022 as the year. An accompanying email along with the document filing mentions the maximum altitude for Starship as 72 miles, which is an extremely low orbital altitude that separates space from Earth’s atmosphere.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX was granted the contract by NASA on April 16th to build the agency’s first human lunar lander since the Apollo program.
Starship, SpaceX’s fully reusable rocket system under development, which will ferry humans and cargo to the Moon and Mars, won NASA’s award mainly for its massive cargo capability and its cheaper bid of $2.9 billion.
SpaceX has launched five Starship prototypes in short- and high-altitude test flights at its Boca Chica, Texas, launch facilities. Though the experiments, especially the high altitude testing, have not been successful and have been destroyed in landing-phase explosions. The latest one has managed to land safely without exploding at touchdown.
SpaceX says that the Starship and the Super Heavy rocket have a 9 m payload compartment, which is larger than any such payload available at present, or soon. This will enable it to deliver satellites to Earth’s orbit and beyond, at a lower marginal cost per launch than the current Falcon vehicles. Starship’s pressurized forward payload volume is greater than 1,000m3, enhancing utilization capacity for in-space activities. The aft cargo containers can also host a variety of payloads, according to a statement on the company’s website.
The first cargo mission to Mars planned in 2022, as indicated by the company, will establish the possibility of life on Mars, look for water sources, and establish a small infrastructure. They are also hopeful of setting up a more secure base on Mars later on to facilitate future missions and the beginnings of colonization of Mars.