July 18, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

Starship survives re-entry during fourth test flight

Updated at 3:20 pm ET with additional comments.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – SpaceX conducted the fourth test flight of its Starship launch system on June 6, and both the Super Heavy booster and the Starship upper stage returned to the surface intact.

The vehicle took off at 8:50 a.m. ET from the company's Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The climb appeared to go as planned, except for the failure to ignite one of the 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster.

Following “hot-start” stage separation, where Starship's upper stage fires its engines before separating from Super Heavy, the Super Heavy booster performed a fail-safe booster burn on the Raptor engine, as was the case on two previous flights. It then discarded the intermediate section between stages, a new step for this launch that, according to SpaceX, is a temporary measure to reduce the mass of the booster for its landing.

During the final phase of booster descent, it re-ignited three Raptor engines to perform a landing. This allowed the booster to make a “landing” in the Gulf of Mexico, reducing its speed to zero at the ocean surface before falling. Achieving that landing was one of the mission's top priorities.

Starship flew its planned suborbital trajectory, without showing the roll seen in the previous launch in March. Starship provided live video during reentry via SpaceX's Starlink satellites, offering spectacular views of the plasma field enveloping the spacecraft.

Starship passed the maximum warm-up phase, unlike the March flight, although the video showed damage to a flap. The vehicle continued a controlled descent and made a landing before ditching approximately 65 minutes after takeoff.

“The payload for this test was data,” the company said in a post-launch statement. statement summarizing the flight. “Starship delivered.”

“Despite the loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship managed a soft landing in the ocean!” saying Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, on social media.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also praised the flight as a step toward developing a lunar lander version of Starship that the agency plans to use for its Artemis lunar exploration campaign. “Congratulations to SpaceX on the successful Starship test flight this morning!” he aware. “We are one step closer to returning humanity to the Moon via Artemis and then looking towards Mars.”

musk said in an April presentation that if the landing of the Super Heavy booster on a “virtual tower” in the Gulf of Mexico was a success on the fourth flight, the company could try to fly the booster back to the launch site on the next flight to try to land it again on the platform with the help of “Mechazilla” arms on the launch tower.

Musk seemed to move forward with that plan in a comment on social networks shortly after this flight. “I think we should try to catch the booster with the mechazilla's arms on the next flight!”

Super heavy booster splashdown
The Super Heavy booster reaches the ocean surface intact on the June 6 flight. Credit: SpaceX webcast

Updated FAA license

The launch took place two days after the Federal Aviation Administration issued an updated launch license for Starship. The updated license did not make any major changes to how SpaceX would conduct the launch, but it was necessary for SpaceX to continue with the mission.

The FAA, however, did approve a series of exceptions proposed by SpaceX that could speed up the time until its next flight. “Test-induced damage exceptions” would allow SpaceX to skip an investigation if they contributed to the loss of the vehicle in flight, as long as they did not affect public safety.

The FAA approved three of these exceptions: failure of the vehicle's thermal protection system during Starship re-entry, failure of the vehicle's flaps to provide sufficient control during re-entry, and failure of the Raptor engines during landing. The FAA said that if any such failure occurs, an investigation will not be necessary as long as it does not result in casualties or damage to third-party property, or debris outside approved hazard areas.

starship lapel
A Starship flap shows signs of damage during reentry on the June 6 test flight. Credit: SpaceX webcast

New threat of lawsuit

On the same day that the FAA issued a new launch license, an environmental group announced its intention to sue SpaceX, alleging that its ground systems were causing water pollution.

SaveRGV, an environmentally focused group from the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, announced on June 4 that it informed SpaceX that it would file a lawsuit against the company, alleging “continued violations of federal law,” specifically the Act of Clean Water.

SaveRGV says the water deluge system SpaceX installed at Starbase, intended to limit damage to the pad during Starship launches, discharges “industrial wastewater” that includes contaminants like metals that can travel up to a kilometer from the pad. SpaceX lacks permission for such downloads from Texas state regulators, the organization says.

An environmental review conducted by the FAA before the second launch of Starship/Super Heavy in November concluded that the addition of the water deluge system did not result in significant environmental changes. He review concluded that “deluge system water is expected to be less than an average summer rainfall event” and “is unlikely to alter water quality.”

The organization said it will file a lawsuit against SpaceX within 60 days, seeking civil penalties and injunctive relief that could prohibit SpaceX from using the flood system or even launching there.

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