WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
This is the first SpaceX test to see whether flying people around the world at Mach 27 will be an achievable goal.
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A year or so ago I covered how Elon Musk was going to try and disrupt global air travel by using SpaceX rockets travelling at Mach 25 to get paying customers anywhere on Earth in under 40 minutes – point to point. Then, in pursuit of that ambition he put out job ads for engineers who could help the company build out their floating launch pads.
Now, taking yet another step SpaceX has announced plans to have its first Starship test flight to orbit launch from Texas and splash down off the coast of an island in Hawaii, according to a document the company filed with the Federal Communications Commission.
The orbital flight test would mark the first time SpaceX stacks both elements of its massive Starship system together which is the next key development step in its attempt to build passenger rockets and rockets that could one day take people to Mars.
As outlined in the document, a super heavy booster stage will launch Starship from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, facilities and separate in mid air nearly three minutes into flight. About five minutes later, that booster stage will return back to Earth and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico — or as SpaceX puts it – “it will perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore.”
Meanwhile, Starship, which is the top half of the entire rocket system, will continue into orbit nearly completing a full trip around Earth before plunging back through the atmosphere over Hawaii roughly 90 minutes after launching from Texas. Starship will aim to nail a “powered, targeted landing” on the ocean about 62 miles off the northwest coast of Kauai, the state’s northernmost island.
The document didn’t name a 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 an email that accompanied Thursday’s filing indicated it could happen any time in the next year, before March 1st, 2022. That email also says the maximum altitude for Starship is 72 miles — an extremely low orbital altitude sitting just north of the boundary between space and Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX’s Starship system is the centerpiece of Musk’s goal to enable routine inter-continental and inter-planetary travel. The system, designed to send humans and up to 100 tons of cargo to the Moon and Mars, recently won a $2.9 billion contract to serve as NASA’s first ride to the Moon carrying astronauts since 1972. SpaceX has launched five high-altitude Starship prototypes from its south Texas rocket facilities since December, nailing a successful landing on its fifth test flight earlier this month. A few more of those suborbital “hop” tests are planned in the next month or so.
Whenever it happens, the orbital test will demonstrate Starship manoeuvres that can’t be simulated using computers, 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.