SpaceX’s Starship Lost Shortly After Launch of Second Test Flight
The Starship created by SpaceX had a test flight that did not go as planned. During the flight, the automated system designed to stop the craft's movement activated, and communication was lost around 10 minutes into the journey. This was the second try to send a Starship on a 90-minute trip that would have almost circled the globe. The first try took place in April, but it failed only four minutes after takeoff, causing debris to scatter in the nearby region.
As previously stated, the launch occurred at SpaceX's Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. This time, all 33 Raptor engines seemed to ignite correctly, and the Starship's stage separation from the Super Heavy booster went mostly according to plan. The vehicle managed to survive max q, which is when it experiences the most amount of pressure from the atmosphere and its own speed during ascent. Approximately three minutes after takeoff, the Starship effectively detached from the Super Heavy booster, which subsequently exploded. This occurrence is something that SpaceX officials usually refer to as a "rapid unscheduled disassembly" or RUD, using veiled language.
On November 18, 2023, SpaceX's enormous Starship rocket launched for a trial run from Starbase situated in Boca Chica, Texas. This event was captured in a photograph taken by Eric Gay, as seen above.
Kate Tice, the quality systems engineer at SpaceX, shared on the company’s webcast that despite the RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly) of the Super Heavy booster, today has been extremely productive.
Prior to Starship achieving orbit, SpaceX's mission control lost communication with the spacecraft and was no longer receiving any information. Roughly 12 minutes into the mission, the automated flight termination system was triggered, resulting in the flight being aborted. This also caused the second stage to experience RUD.
Had the Starship mission been successful, it would have ascended to roughly 146 miles and intended to land in the ocean near Kauai, Hawaii at approximately 8:30 central time.
On SpaceX's recent Starship test flight, there was optimism as it kicked off, but unfortunately, it failed a few minutes into the journey. The organization reported that in the initial minutes of the April flight, there was fuel leakage from the Super Heavy booster, causing fires that cut off communication with the primary flight computer. As a result, the booster and upper stage were not separated, causing the engineers to lose control of the vehicle, and they had to abort the mission. As a last resort, the rocket had to be destroyed using the flight termination system.
According to a recent statement on the SpaceX website, the company learned a lot from a short test flight on April 20. Unfortunately, this flight ended in an explosion that destroyed the launch site and caused debris to scatter around the surrounding area, which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk likened to a "rock tornado." To prevent further incidents, SpaceX worked with the US Federal Aviation Administration to investigate what went wrong. This process involved officials from NASA and the US National Transportation Safety Board as observers, and it was completed on September 8. The investigation revealed that SpaceX needed to address 63 issues in order to minimize debris, prevent fires and leaks, and redesign the launch site before attempting to fly Starship again.
According to a statement released on November 10th, SpaceX made some upgrades to their rocket including implementing a system for hot-stage separation and an electronic thrust vector control system for the Super Heavy’s engines. Additionally, they improved the launch infrastructure by reinforcing the pad foundation and using a water-cooled steel flame deflector.
As the development progressed, the US Fish and Wildlife Service had to investigate the impact the upgraded Boca Chica launch site would have on the environment in the nearby wildlife refuge and public beach. This evaluation began in October, taking into account that various endangered species such as the Gulf Coast jaguarundi, ocelot, five sea turtle species, and certain birds like the piping plover, red knot, and Northern aplomado falcon call this region home.
During October, top SpaceX employees expressed frustration with the slow regulatory process in rare media interviews. William Gerstenmaier, the company's vice president for build and flight reliability, was among those who spoke out. He and other industry executives participated in a US Senate hearing to advocate for streamlined regulations and more FAA resources to issue launch licenses, but FAA officials were not present. Elon Musk also complained about the increasing number of rules and regulations, comparing it to being tied down like Gulliver.
WIRED asked the FAA for a comment on how long the investigation of the mishap would take before issuing a new launch license, but they did not receive a response.
The review by the FAA regarding safety was completed on October 31, whilst the Fish and Wildlife Service's examination of the environment came to an end on November 15. According to the agency, the upgraded launch site and rocket do not pose any new environmental hazards. The FAA approved the launch of Starship today after receiving authorization just two days before November 17, which might have resulted in a delay had a government shutdown occurred. The FAA confirmed SpaceX's fulfillment of all the requirements for safety, environment, policy, and financial accountability in a statement.
The primary improvement that caught the Fish and Wildlife officials' attention was SpaceX's latest water deluge system. Following the initial launch, biologists from the organization were startled that SpaceX lacked vital flame suppression technology in Starship, which is typically a staple in the industry. These systems are designed to alleviate some of the rocket's heat and noise produced during launch. As per Fish and Wildlife's report, SpaceX's groundbreaking innovation entails drenching steel plates with approximately 358,000 gallons of water from earth tanks, which is then released through holes on the plating. Musk referred to it as a "powerful steel shower head, aiming up" in April.
On Saturday, November 18th, 2023, SpaceX's enormous Starship rocket made a test launch from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, and even broke the sound barrier! A photograph by Eric Gay for the Associated Press shows the rocket lifting into the air during its flight.
The second test flight of SpaceX will determine if their new system can decrease the amount of debris and pollution produced. It is important to note that not having this system is not a viable option. According to Phil Metzger, who studies space economics at the University of Central Florida, steel is a better material than concrete because it is ductile and will not fracture like concrete did during the first launch. The concrete cracks allowed hot gas to escape, causing an explosion that was akin to a small volcanic eruption. However, Metzger has confidence in the new deluge system, which he believes will eliminate the problem of debris and contaminated water.
The Fish and Wildlife assessment involved checking the water after SpaceX conducted their static fire tests in August. They observed high amounts of chromium and zinc (which are parts of stainless steel), as well as aluminum and iron in the water. However, further testing showed that the levels of these metals had decreased. Despite this, environmentalists, like David Newstead, who works as an environmental scientist for Texas's Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, are still concerned. He believes that the water released during the tests flows into nearby wildlife sanctuaries, which could be detrimental to the inhabitants. Newstead adds that he would be upset if it happened in his own neighborhood.
The FAA and SpaceX have been sued by local community and environmental organizations on May 1, for not conducting a complete investigation into the potential environmental consequences of the SpaceX Starship program at Boca Chica. This legal action is currently underway. Unfortunately, WIRED's request for comment was disregarded by SpaceX.
SpaceX, along with its collaborators, is banking on the success of Starship to launch without incident in the upcoming two to three years. To assess the hardware and software of the spaceship and rocket accurately, and to determine the proficiency of the heat shield during re-entry, numerous additional flights are imperative. Taking into account the enormous task that SpaceX plans to accomplish with the NASA moon landing deal for Artemis 3 and 4 scheduled for 2026 and 2028, they will need to forge ahead. As an alternative, after a few weeks following the unsatisfactory maiden flight of Starship, NASA disclosed a partnership with Blue Origin, a competitor of SpaceX, for the Artemis 5 moon initiative in 2029.
SpaceX has plans to take private passengers on crewed spaceflights with Starship, scheduled to take place later in the decade. These flights include the DearMoon project, funded by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, and the third Polaris Program spaceflight with billionaire CEO of Shift4 Payments, Jared Isaacman, leading the way. Isaacman was also part of Inspiration4, SpaceX's first all-civilian Crew Dragon flight in 2021 and is set to be the first to lead the Polaris flight aboard a SpaceX Dragon in early 2022. The passengers on this flight will experience up to five days in Earth's orbit and the first commercial spacewalk.