- Maiden flight of next-generation 5,000-tonne “Starship”, the most powerful rocket so far on Earth, is due later this month — or as early as April 20, 2023.
- While a launch failure could set it back, at least temporarily, it’s already passed huge milestones.
- A successful orbital flight test would generate huge public interest, boost space exploration and inspire future generations to pursue careers in science.
There’s excitement in the air, it goes beyond the atmosphere. Starship, the most powerful operational rocket system in the history of mankind, would blast off on its maiden flight soon.
And if everything goes as planned, SpaceX's massive new reusable rocket atop the “Super Heavy” could launch on its first-ever orbital test flight later this month, or as early as Thursday (April 20, 2023).
It’s an epic flight for Ship No. (SN) 24. Stacked and fueled, Starship is about 5,000 tonnes (11,000,000 lb) by mass, 9 metres (30 ft) wide, and 120 metres (390 ft) high, the biggest reusable spacecraft ever made by man.
It will launch from SpaceX's Starbase facility in South Texas, US. By comparison, Starship is more than twice heavier than a fuelled and boosted Space Shuttle (2,051 tonnes) which was retired in 2011.
“Starship is stacked & ready to launch next week, pending regulatory approval,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated via Twitter on April 7.
There are expectations that Starship will launch on April 20, which is a hippie culture celebration. Musk enjoys making 4/20 references and jokes. In so doing, the spacecraft could rewrite history books.
Why is it called “Starship Super Heavy”?
Starship Super Heavy is the name of the combined spacecraft and rocket system being developed by SpaceX.
The name "Super Heavy" specifically refers to the first stage rocket booster of the system, which is designed to provide the majority of the thrust needed to lift the spacecraft off the ground and into space.
The Super Heavy booster is an extremely powerful rocket — able to produce up to 72 meganewtons (16 million pounds) of thrust at liftoff — making it one of the most powerful rockets ever built.
Powered by 31 “Raptor” engines, it uses a combination of cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen as fuel.
The Starship spacecraft, on the other hand, is designed to carry crew and cargo to and from space.
It’s a powerful, yet flexible, rocket capable of performing a variety of missions — including satellite deployment, space station resupply, lunar and Mars missions — and, potentially, even interstellar travel in the future.
Together, the Starship Super Heavy system is intended to be a fully reusable and cost-effective vehicle to access and explore space.
The trial is the first orbital flight for the new rocket system. The massive first-stage booster, known as "Super Heavy", is coupled with a 165-foot-tall (50-meter-tall) upper-stage spacecraft “Starship”.
What is an orbital flight?
Orbital flight refers to the movement of an object, typically a spacecraft, around a celestial body — such as the Earth or Moon — in a closed path called an “orbit”.
For a rocket (or satellite) there’s no need to burn rocket fuel, unless there’s a need to change/correct altitude or for “re-entry” burn.
The object in orbital flight moves at a sufficient velocity to maintain its altitude and speed around the celestial body (such as the Earth), without being pulled back to the surface or flying off into outer space.
For example, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits Earth at an average altitude of 227 nautical miles/420 kilometers above Earth).
What is required to achieve an orbital flight?
In order for an object to achieve an orbital flight, an object (spacecraft) must reach a minimum speed — called the orbital velocity — proportional to the mass and gravitational force of the celestial body it is orbiting.
Once the object has reached this speed, it will continue to move in a stable orbit around the celestial body, as long as it is not affected by other gravitational forces or atmospheric drag.
Why is an orbital test flight important for a new rocket?
Orbital flight is critical for space exploration for one reason: it enables spacecraft to stay in space for extended periods of time. It allows them to perform a variety of scientific and commercial missions, such as satellite deployment, space station operations, and crewed spaceflight.
Certain capabilities of Starship will test while in orbit around the Earth.
During the orbital test flight, the Starship spacecraft will perform a series of maneuvers to demonstrate its ability to operate in space.
These will include:
- Testing its propulsion system
- Life support systems
- Communication systems
- Conducting experiments
- Collecting data to support future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
The Starship Orbital Test Flight is expected to be the first fully integrated flight of the Starship Super Heavy system, and represents a major milestone in SpaceX's efforts to develop a fully reusable spacecraft that can be used for a wide range of space missions.
At a low Earth orbit (LEO) altitude of around 400 km (250 miles) above the Earth's surface, the orbital velocity required to maintain a stable orbit is approximately 7.9 km/s (28,000 km/h or 17,500 mph).
This velocity is also known as the first cosmic velocity or “circular velocity”. At higher altitudes, the required orbital velocity decreases as the gravitational force of the Earth decreases.
For example, at a geostationary orbit altitude of around 36,000 km (22,000 miles) above the Earth's surface, the required orbital velocity is approximately 3.1 km/s(11,000 km/h or 6,900 mph).
What sets Starship apart?
The first is its size: it's the biggest, most powerful rocket of its kind on the planet. They're designed to be totally — and quickly — reusable.
They are both made of stainless steel, and are powered by SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engine — 33 for Super Heavy and six for Starship.
In the past, Starships have already flown, although only on short jumps of 6 miles (10 kilometers) or less over Earth.
Why is the Starship orbital flight significant?
The Starship orbital flight is significant for several reasons:
- #1. Reusable rockets: It advances the development of reusable rockets for potential manned interplanetary missions. One of the key goals of SpaceX is to make space travel more affordable by developing reusable rockets. The Starship is designed to be fully reusable, which would greatly reduce the cost of space travel.
- #2. Interplanetary travel: The Starship is intended to be used for crewed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The successful orbital flight brings SpaceX one step closer to achieving this goal.
- #3. Tech Advancement: The Starship is a technologically advanced spacecraft that uses the latest materials and propulsion systems. Its successful flight demonstrates the progress that has been made in the field of space technology.
- #4. Commercial space exploration: SpaceX is one of the leading companies in the commercial space industry, and the successful Starship orbital flight demonstrates the company's ability to design and build advanced spacecraft that can be used for a variety of commercial applications.
More importanly, Starship would inspire a new generation. The first oorbital flight could generate a lot of public interest, which can help to promote the idea of space exploration and inspire future generations to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
What's the guarantee Starship would succeed?
SpaceX has conducted successful, and failed, flights of both rockets. There's no guarantee that stacked together this time, the flight would succeed. Musk said: "I'm not saying it'll get to orbit, but I am guaranteeing excitement. So it won't be boring."