Starship Successfully Completes Fourth Flight. SpaceX Celebrates That It Didn't Explode

  • Everything went smoothly in Starship's initial launch phases, something that had never happened before.

  • SpaceX’s rocket didn’t explode on re-entry and even ignited its engines to simulate a landing in the Indian Ocean.

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Starship’s fourth launch was an unprecedented success. The rocket took off from SpaceX’s base in southeast Texas and completed every phase flawlessly, including the Super Heavy landing and its re-entry. Although Starship survived, it was scorched, as was to be expected.

Some context. Starship is a two-stage rocket. The first stage consists of the 232-foot-tall booster called Super Heavy. On top of Super Heavy is a 165-foot-tall rocket ship that has the same name as the entire spacecraft: Starship.

Together, they form the world’s tallest launch vehicle. The current version of Starship, V1, has a capacity of about 50 tons. However, the future operational versions, V2 and V3, will purportedly be capable of launching more than 100 and 200 tons, respectively, making them the most powerful rockets in history.

The Super Heavy is responsible for the liftoff and ascent through the atmosphere. After a certain point, the stages separate, with the Super Heavy returning to land while Starship continues to climb until it reaches its planned suborbital trajectory around Earth. It then re-enters the atmosphere at a speed of more than 16,700 miles per hour.

The Super Heavy had the serial number Booster 11 for the fourth launch test, while the Starship had the number 29.

Everything went smoothly during liftoff and stage separation. Booster 11 successfully ignited its 33 methane and liquid oxygen Raptor engines, lifting off on Thursday at 08:50 a.m. ET / 05:50 a.m. PST. The flame deflector’s water jets protected the launch pad as intended.

Two minutes and 41 seconds after liftoff, Booster 11 powered down its engines, although one of them had already powered down prematurely. Seconds later, Ship 29 ignited its engines and separated from the booster.

The Super Heavy then performed a turnaround maneuver to return, toggling its engines on and off after stabilizing with its aerodynamic grids. Subsequently, the hot separation ring was ejected for the first time, following the schedule to reduce the spacecraft’s weight before landing.

The Super Heavy has landed successfully for the first time. SpaceX has finally solved the maneuver it had been struggling with. The booster successfully stabilized and didn’t encounter any issues with oxygen supply to the engines, which had occurred twice before due to filter blockages.

For the first time, the Super Heavy restarted its engines to simulate a landing in the Gulf of Mexico, where it’ll remain with no planned recovery.

If SpaceX considers that the test has been a success, the next booster could land next to the Mechazilla launch tower, where giant mechanical arms called Chopsticks would catch it before it reaches the ground.

SpaceX attempted a new approach to re-entry. The Starship 29 spacecraft kept ascending and then shut down its engines to enter a suborbital trajectory toward the Indian Ocean, where it faced atmospheric re-entry.

Unlike other spacecraft and rockets, Starship’s heat shield is designed to be lightweight and rapidly reusable. No other spacecraft has attempted to survive atmospheric re-entry plasma with such a shield. The goal is for Starship to be able to fly every 24 hours, unlike NASA’s Space Shuttle, which required six-month refurbishments.

SpaceX didn’t expect the spacecraft to survive the heat of air friction during its return to Earth, so it removed two of the ceramic tiles from the heat shield. The data collected from this re-entry will help SpaceX understand the temperatures the rocket can withstand in its current state.

The Starship survived re-entry, albeit scorched and broken. The Starlink antennas captured the entire re-entry live, showing how the Starship, surrounded by plasma, heated up until it surpassed the previous flight’s disintegrating heat.

Although Starship didn’t remain in one piece and started losing parts of its aerodynamic surfaces and possibly other components not visible due to camera angles, it managed to restart its engines for a simulated landing.

The Starship successfully survived re-entry for the first time, although it was somewhat scorched and broken, and splashed down in the Indian Ocean. This marks a significant milestone toward creating the first rapidly reusable rocket in history.

Image | SpaceX

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