SpaceX will attempt to launch its Starship rocket, the most powerful to ever fly, for the second time tomorrow, after a test in April saw it fly for 5 minutes before exploding.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, will be keen to see the rocket succeed as it forms a central part of his plan to send astronauts to the moon and to colonise Mars, but local residents and environmental scientists will also be hoping the second test doesn’t again end in failure, after houses in a kilometres-wide radius were covered in dust and debris.
What time is Starship launching?
SpaceX is aiming for a 20-minute launch window starting at 8am EST (1pm GMT) on 18 November. A livestream of the launch will begin half an hour earlier, at 7.30am EST (12.30 GMT). The launch was originally planned for 17 November but has been delayed to replace a part, Musk said.
The rocket is launching from SpaceX’s Starbase spaceport near Boca Chica, Texas. Nearby residents have been warned to expect a loud thundering noise.
Where is Starship going?
The flight plan for Starship is similar to the first launch – assuming it passes its preflight checks, it will fly for 90 minutes after launch before making a controlled descent, splashing down somewhere off the coast of Hawaii.
If the tests prove successful, SpaceX says it will use Starship to carry astronauts to the moon and, eventually, Mars. The 120-metre-tall rocket will be fully reusable and will be able to transport up to 100 passengers.
What happened when Starship launched before?
Starship launched for the first time in April. After it successfully lifted off from the ground and reached a height of around 40 kilometres, it caught fire and engineers on the ground triggered it to self-destruct to avoid an uncontrolled descent.
SpaceX later claimed the failure was from propellant leaking into the booster rocket, which cut off Starship’s flight computer.
After the first launch, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found 63 corrective actions that SpaceX needed to carry out before a second launch, such as “vehicle hardware to prevent leaks and fires, redesign of the launch pad to increase its robustness” and “incorporation of additional reviews in the design process”.
SpaceX claims it has now fixed these problems, implementing a new hot-stage separation system and thrust control, reinforcing the launch pad and making other enhancements, so the FAA has given it the green light to launch again.
What happens if this launch goes wrong?
Rocket tests often end in explosions, and Musk has said he puts the chances of a successful orbital launch at about 60 per cent. While SpaceX has embraced these failures – what Musk calls “rapid, uncontrolled disassembles” – as an essential part of its design process, the previous Starship explosion drew criticism from environmental groups.
Before the April launch, the FAA concluded that there would be “no significant impact” on the surrounding environment and stipulated that SpaceX must monitor local vegetation and wildlife. But the take-off destroyed the launchpad, creating an enormous cloud of dust and concrete debris that settled on the surrounding environment for tens of kilometres, including delicate marine habitat
SpaceX says it has reinforced the launch pad and installed a “water-cooled flame deflector” to reduce the risk of this happening again, but that isn’t guaranteed. If it does occur, it is likely the FAA will once again mount an investigation into the launch and won’t agree to a third launch until SpaceX can prove that issues won’t occur once more.