Second Starship launch, Another Step Forward


SpaceX Starship, the largest ever built, fook off yesterday for its second launch. A highly anticipated test that brought the entire vehicle into space for the first time. Unfortunately, this test also did not last long. Immediately after the separation of the two stages, the massive Super Heavy (Booster 9) was detonated. The upper stage (Ship 25) of the Starship also exploded before reaching the target altitude.

Overcoming the two-stage separation issue

“What we believe at this moment is that the automated flight termination system on the second stage seems to have activated very late” said John Insprucker, SpaceX’s chief integration engineer. The huge spacecraft took off around 13:00 GMT from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica.

Hundreds of spectators gathered to witness launch cheered as the light from the 33 Raptor engines of the Starship ‘s first stage illuminated during its ascent. Standing at almost 122 meters tall, Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. The first launch, which took place on April 20 of this year, did not go as well as this one. Launch ended with self-destruction after about four minutes of flight. One of the reasons was the failure of the spacecraft’s two stages to separate.

To avoid this problem, SpaceX decided to adopt a new strategy called hot staging in which the engines of the upper stage start firing before separation. This concept is not new; it was used on vehicles like NASA‘s Gemini program’s Titan II in the 1960s and the venerable Russian Soyuz rocket, which is still in operation.

The moment of separation between the two stages. Credit: SpaceX
The moment of separation between the two stages. Credit: SpaceX

Finally reaching space

Separation of the two stages occurred about 2 minutes and 41 seconds after liftoff and seemed to proceed smoothly, but the Super Heavy booster exploded shortly after. “We will take this data and improve the hot staging sequence and probably improve the hardware itself for the next flight” said Kate Tice, SpaceX’s technical quality manager. The company hoped to achieve a soft landing of the first stage in the Gulf of Mexico to test reentry and landing processes.

At the same time, the upper stage of the spacecraft, Ship 25, flew for a short period after separation. SpaceX hoped to establish signal acquisition with the spacecraft at the target altitude of about 250 kilometers. However, the vehicle’s telemetry was lost about eight minutes after liftoff. The last telemetry signal from Ship 25 marked an altitude of 148 kilometers.

Once again, it’s essential to emphasize that this was not a failure. None of the technicians expected the spacecraft to achieve a complete orbit around the Earth. “Today, we are not aiming for orbit. We are almost aiming for orbit” said Siva Bharadvaj, an operational engineer at SpaceX. “The goal was to reach a thrust profile similar to what we would need to reach orbit”.

NASA as an interested spectator

“Honestly, it was an incredibly successful day, even though we had a self-destruction” said Tice. “It’s fantastic. We have so much data that will help us improve for our next flight”. Among the interested spectators of the Starship ‘s second launch was NASA. The return of astronauts to the surface of the Moon depends heavily on SpaceX. American space agency has chosen Starship as the lunar lander for the Artemis 3 mission, which is expected to bring astronauts to the Moon by the end of 2025.

Launch pad after the Starship launch. Compared to the first attempt, it has suffered no damage, indicating that SpaceX's improvements have worked effectively. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography
Launch pad after the Starship second launch. Compared to the first attempt, it has suffered no damage, indicating that SpaceX’s improvements have worked effectively. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

Currently, Starship test iterations do not include any of the cabin components or life support needed to carry payload or support a crew. But SpaceX is betting heavily on the rocket’s success. However, the company will have to investigate the causes that led to the self-destruction and take measures to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

Stefano Gallotta
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