June 16, 2024

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The SpaceX spacecraft took a beating, but survived its first return from space

The SpaceX spacecraft took a beating, but survived its first return from space
Zoom in / Not a simulation. Plasma streams onto the atmospheric surfaces of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle during reentry at high altitude over the Indian Ocean.

SpaceX showed on Thursday that its Super Heavy booster and Starship rocket may soon be recovered and reused in the way Elon Musk envisioned for the future of space exploration.

For the first time, both components of the nearly 400-foot (121-meter) rocket were not only successfully launched from SpaceX’s Starbase facility near Brownsville, Texas, but also returned to Earth for controlled landings at sea. This demonstration is a precursor to future spacecraft test flights that will return the booster, and eventually the upper stage, to Earth for reuse again and again.

The two-stage rocket lifted off from Starbase at 7:50 a.m. CST (12:50 UTC) and headed east over the Gulf of Mexico with more than 15 million pounds of thrust, twice that of NASA’s Apollo Saturn V rocket. The lunar program in the 1960s and 1970s.

Check all the boxes

The largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built, Starship is key to SpaceX’s future. NASA also has a stake in the spacecraft’s success because the agency selected it to fill the role of a human-designated lunar lander for the Artemis program to transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

There will be dozens more Starship flights before anyone actually steps inside a Starship lander, and that probably won’t happen sooner than the latter part of this decade. But some of Starship’s other goals, such as recovering the entire rocket and reusing it, appear within reach.

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“Starship’s fourth flight has made great strides to bring us closer to a fast, reusable future.” SpaceX said in an update on its website. “Its accomplishments will provide data to drive improvements as we continue to rapidly develop the spacecraft into a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

Thursday’s test flight was the fourth launch of a full-size Starship rocket, and the first to end with the booster and ship reaching the Earth’s surface as one piece. The results matched the best possible scenarios leading up to Thursday’s flight.

It’s been less than absolutely perfect, but you can’t describe the trip as anything but a success. “The payload for this test was data,” SpaceX said. “The spacecraft has been delivered.”

The fourth large-scale test flight of SpaceX's Starship rocket lifted off from Starbase, a privately owned spaceport near Brownsville, Texas.
Zoom in / The fourth large-scale test flight of SpaceX’s Starship rocket lifted off from Starbase, a privately owned spaceport near Brownsville, Texas.

Two of the Super Heavy rocket’s 33 methane-fueled Raptor engines failed during Thursday’s test flight, one during ascent and the other during a final brake burn before the plane plunged into the Gulf of Mexico. However, the remaining engines guided the booster to a relatively gentle landing in the ocean after a vertical landing just off the coast of Starbase about seven and a half minutes after liftoff. SpaceX came close to achieving the feat on Starship’s third flight in March, but lost contact when most of the landing engines failed to ignite.

Engineers blamed a clogged filter in the lines that feed liquid oxygen fuel into the Raptor’s engines for the landing failure in March. That didn’t seem to be much of an issue Thursday. SpaceX also made another change to the booster descent by eliminating it during the descent of the rocket’s hot staging loop, where the Starship’s upper stage connects to the Super Heavy for launch.

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Meanwhile, six Raptor engines in the Starship’s upper stage burned a few seconds longer than planned to make up for the lack of booster performance. This put the ship on the proper suborbital trajectory to reach a peak altitude of 132 miles (213 km) before Earth’s gravity pulled the 165-foot-tall (50 m) vehicle into the atmosphere about 47 minutes after launch.

The journey up to this point was just a prelude to the grand finale.

On SpaceX’s third Starship test flight in March, scorching heat from reentry destroyed the rocket as it descended into the upper atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. SpaceX said the blockage of the propulsion engines caused the ship to lose the ability to control its direction in space. This caused the spacecraft to fall into the atmosphere in the wrong direction, exposing unprotected parts of the craft to intense heat upon reentry.

SpaceX's Super Heavy rocket and Starship rocket climb through foggy skies over south Texas.
Zoom in / SpaceX’s Super Heavy rocket and Starship rocket climb through foggy skies over south Texas.

Stephen Clark/Ars Technica

This time, the spacecraft maintained control throughout the flight. Dazzling live footage from cameras on board the rocket, transmitted to Earth through SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network, showed purple and orange plasma streaming over the vehicle as it soared through the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean.

A few moments later, a camera showed pieces of the rocket, presumably ceramic thermal protection tiles, peeling off. There appears to be damage to the hinge connecting one of the ship’s control panels to the main body. However, the damaged flap can still move and help control the ship using aerodynamic forces as it dives belly-first deeper into the atmosphere.

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“The spacecraft performed a controlled re-entry, successfully passed peak heating and maximum aerodynamic pressure phases, and demonstrated the ability to control the vehicle using its flaps while descending through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds,” SpaceX said. These were the main mission objectives that Musk outlined before launch.

Finally, three of Starship’s Raptor engines ignited, and the rocket flipped from a belly-down orientation to a vertical position a few hundred feet above the middle of the Indian Ocean, according to SpaceX. It was difficult to understand what the live camera footage was showing because the waterfall happened at night, halfway around the world from Texas.

But direct telemetry data indicated that the missile slowed to a halt when it reached the sea, and then communications were cut off about an hour and 6 minutes after the start of the mission.

“Despite missing several tiles and a damaged covering, the spacecraft was able to land smoothly in the ocean!” Post Musk on X, his social media platform. “Congratulations to the SpaceX team on this epic achievement.”