FCC filing offers 1st look at SpaceX’s orbital Starship flight plan
SpaceX has given an initial look at the flight plan for its first orbital Starship attempt in a new filing posted to the Federal Communications Commission website.
Released May 13, 2021, the FCC request is for SpaceX to be able to communicate with the two stages of the Starship launch system from ground stations during flight and recovery operations. The flight is intended to demonstrate orbital dynamics of the Starship system that cannot be predicted or replicated computationally according to the company in the document. This is expected to mark the first time both Starship and the Super Heavy booster are integrated for a flight.
The filing included an exhibit document from SpaceX detailing some general parameters for the flight.
The Super Heavy booster first stage and Starship second stage is expected to separate about 170 seconds into flight, after which the booster is to return for “soft landing” about 20 miles (32 kilometers) offshore from the Boca Chica, Texas, launch.
Meanwhile, the Starship vehicle itself is expected to continue on over the Florida straights to orbital heights and velocities before attempting reentry and a soft controlled ocean landing 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the northernmost island of Hawaii, Kauai.
Musk pointed out on Twitter that this will be three quarters of the way around Earth — much farther than the 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) up and down suborbital hops observers of the program have grown accustomed to — and that deorbit over the Pacific Ocean is a necessary precaution to minimize the risks of breakup on reentry for this first attempt.
The language of the document has stirred some conversation with regards to potential recovery operations — or lack thereof.
On the timetable of events included, it is notable that the Super Heavy booster ocean landing is described as a “touchdown” while the Starship ocean landing is described as a “splashdown.” No mention of recovery operations was made in the document and the only vessels capable of landing the Super Heavy booster at sea are retired oil drilling platforms still undergoing retrofits at ports in Texas and Louisiana.
Targeted controlled landings on the water’s surface are not unheard of for SpaceX as the company conducted them with initial flight tests of the Falcon 9 launch system before the drone ship recovery process was ready. It will be interesting to see how SpaceX handles the Starship system’s first encounter with the ocean — will it recover the vehicles or treating them as expendable.
An expendable situation would be unfortunate with the increased amount of Raptor engines lost with the Super Heavy booster, which could conceivably feature the full compliment of up to 28 engines for the flight.
The filing is also vague on a timeline for the launch. The only clues to when it might happen are an operating window beginning optimistically on June 20, 2021, and Musk’s own stated goals of going orbital by July this year.
Eyes will remain on development of the next Super Heavy boosters at the Boca Chica build facility to know when the hardware for the flight will become available. Booster BN1 has been scrapped as a production pathfinder, while sections for BN2 and BN3 have been spotted in various stages of production at the site.
BN3 is expected to be the booster to go orbital with Starship SN20, while potential plans for BN2 still wildly vary from being test tanks only to a suborbital hop candidate to even possibly being orbit capable as well, according to Musk himself on Twitter.
In any case, Starship going orbital anytime before the end of the year would be a critical milestone for SpaceX at a crucial time where major NASA contracts such as the recent Artemis Human Landing System win for the Starship program are in the spotlight and on the line.
Together with the recent first successful landing of a suborbital prototype with Starship SN15, a successful orbital test would represent the most major strides forward in the program to date. Expectations for the first orbital tests should still remain tempered, however, according to Musk, who has previously said multiple attempts are likely for the Starship SN20+ series of orbit-capable Starships to survive Mach 25 reentry heating and land intact.
A 2019 animation of Starship launching toward orbit. Video courtesy of SpaceX
Nicholas D'Alessandro was born and raised in Southwest Florida. The seeds of his interest in Space Exploration were planted when the Shuttle's sonic boom upon re-entry would reverberate through his childhood home even across the state; the knowledge that a real life spacecraft was passing overhead and could have that effect was fascinating to him. A middle school field trip to the Kennedy Space Center cemented that fascination, and with an additional interest in the bleeding edge of automotive technology and Teslas, it was the story of Elon Musk's path to Cape Canaveral with SpaceX that finally led Nicholas to move to the Space Coast and, after joining Spaceflight Insider in 2020, begin documenting the dawning era of commercial spaceflight.