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The Countdown for Starship (almost) Begins: SpaceX Prepares for Launch

Starship (Credit: Mark Felix/Bloomberg)

SpaceX made an announcement on Friday, revealing their aim for the second flight test of the Super Heavy rocket and the Starship upper stage to take place in "mid-November." However, this launch date remains contingent on regulatory approvals, with the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service still engaged in the environmental review process for the rocket and its launch site in South Texas, which is situated amidst wetlands.

Nonetheless, the SpaceX announcement signals the company's optimism regarding the impending receipt of regulatory approval, aligning with information from sources that suggests federal authorization for the second Starship launch is near completion.

The initial Starship test flight, which included the Super Heavy booster, took off from South Texas on April 20, 2023. This launch encountered issues as three of the rocket's 33 main Raptor engines did not ignite fully during liftoff, and three more engines failed during ascent. Eventually, the vehicle was destroyed by its flight termination system as it deviated off course. Despite these setbacks, SpaceX gathered valuable data from the experience.

Notably, challenges extended beyond the rocket's performance to the launch site itself. The company had initially constructed the launch tower without a flame diverter and other structures to manage the power generated by the 33 main engines. Consequently, the launch pad sustained significant damage, with concrete debris ejected into the surrounding wetlands.

Since then, SpaceX has diligently rebuilt the launch pad and introduced a water sound suppression system to mitigate the energy produced during liftoff. Part of the ongoing review by the Fish and Wildlife Service aims to ascertain whether these measures are sufficient to counter the explosive power of the rocket's ignition and departure from the launch site.

SpaceX is once again targeting a morning liftoff, possibly at 8 am local time in South Texas (14:00 UTC), although the earliest possible launch date, November 13, remains tentative. The flight plan for the second test, as disclosed by SpaceX on Friday, mirrors the one from April. It entails a 90-minute flight for the Starship upper stage, intended to nearly complete a full orbit before splashing down into the Pacific Ocean near Kauai.

A significant change in this flight is the incorporation of "hot staging," where the Starship's Raptor engines will ignite before the upper stage separates from the Super Heavy first stage. Although more technically complex than the traditional staging method, this modification is expected to enhance Starship's payload capacity by approximately 10 percent, according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

For this flight, SpaceX does not intend to recover either the first or second stage. Instead, the primary objective is to demonstrate the flight capabilities of the Super Heavy rocket and, if the separation occurs, assess the performance of Starship. Musk has estimated a 60 percent chance of Starship successfully reaching its destination during this mission, promising an exciting spectacle regardless of the outcome.

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