SpaceX Targets March 14 for Third Starship Test Flight

SpaceX Targets March 14 for Third Starship Test Flight

SpaceX is targeting March 14 for the next Starship Orbital Flight Test pending FAA approval. It will be the third flight of the gigantic rocket in less than a year and will fly a different trajectory. The first two attempts did not attain orbit, but were to land near Hawaii if they did. This time Starship will head to the Indian Ocean. SpaceX says it will allow more types of tests along the route.

SpaceX and the FAA have been indicating for several weeks that OFT-3, also called the Integrated Flight Test-3 or IFT-3, would take place around the second week of March. SpaceX now has posted on X that the date is March 14 pending regulatory approval.

The first test on April 20, 2023 ended in a RUD — Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly, SpaceX’s term for an explosion — about 4 minutes into flight. The second, on November 18, 2023, got further, but not into orbit. It did successfully demonstrate “hot staging” where the second stage engines ignite while still attached to the first stage, though the first stage exploded thereafter. The second stage continued ascending, but SpaceX said the mission failed about 7 minutes later because they vented liquid oxygen that caught fire, triggering the autonomous flight termination system.

SpaceX’s 120-meter (394-foot) tall Starship on the launch pad at Starbase in Boca Chica, TX in November 2023 prior to the second Orbital Flight Test, OFT-2 (os Integrated Flight Test, IFT). The silver first stage is called Super Heavy. The second stage, covered in black thermal protection tiles, is Starship, although the combination is also called Starship. Photo credit: SpaceX.

Starship launches eastward from SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, TX and the first two test flights were intended to fly about three-quarters of the way around the globe, splashing down near Hawaii. Although it’s called an “orbital” flight test, Starship is not intended to make an orbit of the Earth for these tests.

This time it will head to the Indian Ocean instead. SpaceX says it “enables us to attempt new techniques like in-space engine burns while maximizing public safety.” Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell posted his calculation of the new trajectory on X.

SpaceX is eager to get Starship operational. Not only does it need Starship to launch the new generation of its own Starlink communications satellites, but SpaceX won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to use Starship as the Human Landing System for the first crew to land on the Moon since the Apollo program. That flight, Artemis III, is scheduled for September 2026, just two-and-a-half years away. SpaceX must launch an uncrewed demonstration flight before that.

Illustration of Starship HLS on the Moon. Note the astronauts at the bottom of the rocket for scale. Credit: SpaceX

As big as Starship is, it cannot go directly to the Moon like NASA’s Space Launch System. It must stop in earth orbit for refueling at a currently non-existent fuel depot. Starship uses cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen as propellant. In-space refuelling of cryogenic propellants has never been demonstrated and SpaceX estimates that “10ish” Starship launches will be needed to create and fill the fuel depot for one flight to the Moon.

As a first step, SpaceX has a separate $53 million contract with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate through its “Tipping Point” program to demonstrate propellant transfer of liquid oxygen on this test flight. SpaceX also plans to test opening and closing Starship’s payload door and relighting one of its six second-stage Raptor engines in space.

Probably coincidentally, March 14 is “pi day” — an annual celebration of mathematics since the value of pi begins with 3.14. Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. An “irrational” number that does not repeat, trying to calculate its precise value is an endless quest that fascinates mathematicians and other math enthusiasts.

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