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Starship reached orbit for the first time, but could not "land" in the ocean - SpaceX lost it on approach

Starship reached orbit for the first time, but could not "land" in the ocean - SpaceX lost it on approach
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The third test flight of the Starship heavy rocket (mission IFT-3) by SpaceX ended with partial success today - actually, the team managed to "go further than ever before." The launch was broadcasted live on SpaceX's X/Twitter account.

Starship's Third Test Flight. How it Went

The biggest achievement of this test flight - the Starship prototype (S28) reached the desired low Earth orbit for the first time, and then successfully departed from it, although it did not manage to softly land in the ocean. Considering the results of today's test, SpaceX engineers made quite a few changes to the design ("thousands of changes," if Elon Musk is to be believed) based on the investigation results of the explosive second attempt IFT-2, when both stages were exploded after separation due to a clogged filter and a leak of liquid oxygen. The first attempt of the orbital flight of Starship in April 2023, as a reminder, ended in a controlled explosion after the stages failed to separate.

This time, the entire Starship flight lasted about 50 minutes (compared to just over 8 minutes in the previous test). It proceeded according to a slightly updated plan considering the mission objectives.

Starship in full configuration with Super Heavy (the total system height exceeds 120 meters) launched from the Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, at 15:25 Kyiv time on March 14, 2024. By the way, this is already the second consecutive successful launch without delays or postponements.

Launch

The first stage worked perfectly until the final touchdown stage. Approximately at 2:49 after launch, the Starship heavy rocket with all 33 booster engines (all worked throughout, none failed) reached a height of 72 km, where a successful separation occurred via the "hot" scheme: most of the Super Heavy B10 booster engines were shutdown and simultaneously the S28 ship engines started working.

Hot Stage Separation

This is the second time that the Starship team has managed to demonstrate hot stage separation. The first stage successfully performed the Boostback Burn maneuver (similar to the Falcon 9 / Falcon Heavy booster return) and entered the landing trajectory, but lost communication with the booster in the final moments before landing in the ocean. Preliminarily, not all engines worked as planned at this stage, so the booster could not decelerate enough for a soft water landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Drifting in Space and Hatch Test

As for the Starship ship, after separation from the booster, it activated all 6 engines and continued to climb along the planned trajectory - it reached a height of about 150 km, successfully entered a near-Earth orbit with an apogee of about 235 km, and turned off the engines. The spaceship then successfully tested the mechanism for opening and closing the payload bay door (shown in the video below) and transferring cryogenic fuel from the small tank to the main one. After that (around 40 minutes after launch), the procedure of re-entry into the atmosphere began. And that's where the problems started: the ignition of the vacuum Raptors, which was supposed to be the first demonstration of their operation, did not occur (for some reason, the onboard computer did not execute the command).

Eventually, the Starship re-entered the atmosphere without compromising its integrity, maneuvering strictly with its fins. In the live stream video, you can see small fragments detaching from the ship during the upper atmosphere entry. Quite a few heat shield tiles also fell off. Communication with the ship was lost at an altitude of about 65 km and a speed of 7.14 km/sec. Most likely, the autonomous safety system, after detecting deviations from the planned parameters, activated the flight abort system, which destroyed the ship somewhere over the Indian Ocean.

Finally, it can be added that during this launch, the SpaceX team also tested the cameras and stable Starlink connection, giving us many perspectives and incredibly beautiful shots of the Starship. Just a few seconds of the video with the plasma enveloping the spacecraft during atmospheric entry are worth mentioning.

Return to the Atmosphere

What's Next

SpaceX has reiterated several times that the main goal of this test (as well as any other) is to gather important data for further development. Therefore, the team will need some time to analyze all the collected data in detail and determine where adjustments need to be made so that at least one of the stages can make a soft landing next time. Hopefully, this time the investigation will take less time, and SpaceX will quickly receive the regulator's license for the next test - they have already prepared enough boosters and ships.

Earlier, SpaceX requested the FAA regulator for permission for at least 9 test launches of Starship by the end of the year. At the same time, Elon Musk, responding to the editor of space topics at Ars Technica, Eric Berger, expressed hopes for at least 6 more Starship launches this year. Therefore, the launch of Starship V2 this year is quite possible.

Record of the broadcast

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