Starship’s Second Flight Test: How Elon Musk’s Latest Upgrades to Starship Aim to Prevent Future Explosions – A Look at SpaceX’s Upgraded Rocket
SpaceX is preparing for another attempt to launch its Starship rocket, possibly on November 18 at 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT), after its previous effort ended dramatically. The company, under CEO Elon Musk, has implemented significant changes since the last launch in April, when Starship was destroyed mid-air, causing widespread debris.
This time, SpaceX is confident about avoiding a repeat of the past disaster. Over a thousand modifications have been made to the rocket since April, as Musk announced in September. A recent SpaceX video showcases some of these critical upgrades, anticipating a successful upcoming launch.
These modifications, including major new installations, are designed to enhance the rocket’s chances of reaching orbit. As the world’s largest and most powerful rocket, Starship is central to Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars and NASA’s lunar missions.
Here’s an overview of four major upgrades made to the rocket Starship’s Second Flight Test, as explained by a former SpaceX mission director:
- Introduction of a vent between the rocket and the booster for a challenging new procedure
SpaceX has incorporated a vent between the two segments of the rocket, indicating a daring new approach for the upcoming flight: hot staging.
Comprising the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy booster, SpaceX’s gargantuan Starship rocket has two primary stages.
The booster is responsible for lifting the structure from the Earth’s surface, pushing through the denser layers of the atmosphere. Subsequently, the spacecraft detaches from the booster at a high altitude to continue its journey independently.
In traditional rocket launches, “the main engines on the booster stage come to a stop, then the second stage lights up after it’s been separated,” explains Abhi Tripathi, a former mission director for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and current Director of Mission Operations at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory.
However, for Starship’s forthcoming launch, the spacecraft is set to ignite its engines while still attached to its booster, Tripathi notes.
According to Musk, this method offers a notable advantage by providing the spacecraft with a modest yet critical increase in lift capacity, potentially augmenting the rocket’s payload capacity by roughly 10%.
However, this technique, known as hot staging, could expose the booster to greater flame-induced peril, an ostensibly paradoxical choice for SpaceX, which prioritizes the reusability of its boosters, according to Tripathi.
Tripathi suggests that SpaceX’s engineers may have weighed the options and concluded that the enhanced performance achievable with this method justified the associated risks.
- Enhanced protection against booster damage
While the initial test flight seemed successful, it abruptly ended in an explosion. Preceding the blast, the live-streamed flight diagram indicated malfunctions, with two engines failing and a third flickering, in addition to three that were inactive from the start.
According to Tripathi, a few engine failures aren’t catastrophic, given Starship’s capacity to reach orbit even with reduced thrust.
However, these were signs of deeper issues within the booster. SpaceX later disclosed that a fuel leak within the booster led to fires, disrupting communication with the flight computer and ultimately causing loss of vehicle control.
“If something cascades from the engine to knock out the smarts of your rocket, that’s not good,” Tripathi asserts.
According to him, SpaceX likely miscalculated the shielding needed to protect the booster from its own engines’ force.
In response, SpaceX has presumably reinforced protection for the booster’s components and introduced additional onboard fire control systems.
This extra shielding adds weight, possibly influencing the decision to adopt hot staging, Tripathi speculates.
- Improved self-destruct mechanism
The initial excitement of SpaceX engineers quickly turned to concern at around 2 minutes and 45 seconds into the test flight when the rocket failed to detach from its booster as planned. The rocket spun out of control for approximately a minute before erupting into a massive fireball.
The delayed explosion posed a significant issue.
Equipped with an automated self-destruct mechanism known as the Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS), the Starship is designed to recognize malfunctions and react accordingly. However, according to a SpaceX statement on September 8, the AFSS activated the rocket’s explosives later than expected.
This delay indicated a malfunction in the AFSS, a situation likely scrutinized by the FAA.
For security reasons, specific details about the enhancements to the system remain undisclosed, as noted by Tripathi. Nevertheless, SpaceX has verified that it has reinforced and revalidated the AFSS to bolster its reliability.
- Launchpad redesign with a ‘gigantic upside-down shower head‘
The rocket’s April launch compromised the launchpad, scattering debris across the surrounding area and igniting a significant fire in a nearby state park, drawing criticism from environmental groups.
A major issue, Tripathi points out, is the absence of a flame diverter at the Boca Chica launch site. Typically, flame diverters are large tunnels built beneath launchpads to direct flames away.
SpaceX, instead of constructing a flame diverter, initially relied on a thick concrete pad to absorb the launch’s force, a calculation that proved incorrect.
For the upcoming launch, SpaceX has adapted by installing a “water-cooled steel sandwich” on the pad, as Musk described.
Full-pressure test of Starship flame deflector pic.twitter.com/CUPGfLsm8h— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 28, 2023
The redesigned pad features dual steel plates and a water deluge system, akin to a massive inverted shower head, aiming to counteract the intense heat from the booster.
Additionally, the pad has been fortified with extensive volumes of high-strength concrete.
The FAA has since approved SpaceX for another launch attempt, following a thorough investigation and required adjustments post the April incident.
FAA’s Acting Administrator Polly Trottenberg conveyed to the press an “optimistic” stance that a launch license might be issued in the upcoming month, as reported by Reuters.
On November 13, Musk hinted on social media at receiving a go-ahead for a Friday launch, although it was not explicitly stated whether this approval was from the FAA.
Was just informed that approval to launch should happen in time for a Friday launch https://t.co/NshoTHdqew— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 14, 2023
Before issuing a new license, the FAA had to assess the modifications made to the Starship’s launch system, including an environmental review of the revamped launchpad, as communicated to Insider via email.
Legal challenges regarding the FAA’s oversight of the environmental aspects of Starship’s launch could introduce further postponements. Senior Attorney Jared M. Margolis from the Center for Biological Diversity, a party in the legal action against the FAA, informed Insider that while the lawsuit could potentially delay launches, no motion for an injunction had been filed as of September.
Image Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue