SpaceX is preparing to rocket the latest prototype of its Starship spaceship thousands of feet into the air, then land it gently back on the ground.
If the company can pull off this tricky manoeuvre – cutting the rocket's engines back on as it plummets toward Earth, just in time to turn it upright, slow its fall, and steadily set down on a landing pad – it will be the first time a Starship vehicle has ventured so high and returned in one piece.
Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, wants the final Starship-Super Heavy launch system to be fully and rapidly reusable.
If Musk's plan succeeds, Starship may slash the cost of reaching space 1,000-fold, power round-the-world hypersonic travel on Earth, and fly astronauts to the moon.
Musk has said that his ultimate plan is to build 1,000 Starships that will carry enough people and cargo to Mars to build an independent, self-sustaining city there.
SpaceX first launched a Starship prototype of this kind on December 8. Called Starship serial No. 8, or SN8, it roared tens of thousands of feet above the company's expanding facilities at Boca Chica, Texas.
SN8 then tipped its nosecone forward, cut off its engines, and began to plummet. As the vehicle neared the ground in a belly-flop-like freefall, it re-fired its engines to flip upright and slow its descent.
However, low pressure in a propellant tank caused the spaceship to fall too fast, slam into its landing pad, and catastrophically explode.
SpaceX still considered the seven-minute test flight a success, though, because it was inherently an experiment – and one that flew higher than ever before and performed unprecedented manoeuvres.
For example, SN8's flight achieved sequential rocket-engine shutdowns, aerial flips, and a belly flop made stable via wing flaps. (Previous test flights had been "hops," with prototypes launching a few hundred feet into the air, then landing downrange.)
Now SpaceX is set for another major test flight, and this time it could stick the landing.
Like its predecessor, the new prototype, called SN9, is 16 stories tall and powered by three Raptor engines. SN9 tipped over inside a vertical assembly building on December 11, but SpaceX appeared to make quick repairs and roll it out to a beachside launch pad.
In preparation for launch, SpaceX clamped down the SN9 and test-fired its engines three times on Wednesday – a record static-fire rate for the Starship program.
The company seemed prepared to launch this week, but two of the engines needed repairs, Musk tweeted on Thursday. Musk added that he's hoping SpaceX can speed up the engine-swapping process so that it takes "a few hours at most."
SpaceX appears to be targeting a Monday launch. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an airspace closure notice for a rocket launch from Boca Chica for that day from 8 am to 6 pm CST. The FAA issued similar notices for Tuesday and Wednesday – back-up dates in case weather or glitches cause SpaceX to delay the test flight.
Both airspace closure and local road closures are required for launch. The Cameron County judge has issued Boca Chica road-closure notices for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 8 am to 5 pm CST.
How to watch SN9's launch attempt live
SpaceX may broadcast the launch attempt live on YouTube. Several online broadcasters, such as NASASpaceFlight.com and LabPadre, also plan to stream live video footage of the flight. We will embed these live feeds below once they're available.
A series of events typically precedes a Starship prototype launch.
A couple of hours beforehand, SpaceX will clear the launch site of personnel. Roughly an hour ahead of flight, storage tanks at the launch site will begin venting gases as SpaceX prepares to fuel Starship with cryogenic fuels. Fuelling later causes Starship to vent gases out of its top, signalling that launch could occur within minutes.
Poor weather, a technical glitch, or a boat entering the launch's danger zone – a new challenge for Starship – could lead to delays.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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