SpaceX founder Elon Musk says they will be ready to launch another test rocket on an orbital test flight from Texas to Hawaii in as soon as 3-4 weeks. However, before SpaceX launches again, the FAA must issue a fresh launch license and complete its review of what happened with the most recent launch attempt. If the FAA wrapped up the review quickly, SpaceX could squeeze in another launch attempt before the Christmas holiday.
On Saturday, November 18, SpaceX attempted another orbital test flight of its Starship and Super Heavy Rocket, the world’s largest, most powerful rocket developed. The FAA has granted a launch license to SpaceX for their launch just days before when they completed an investigation of the first launch attempt which created significant damage at the launch pad and surrounding areas.
The stacked Starship lifted off from its pad in a spectacular launch at Starbase in south Texas on Saturday morning. And unlike the first launch attempt, it doesn’t appear that there was any damage to the launch structure at Starbase.
“Just inspected the Starship launch pad and it is in great condition,” wrote Elon Musk on his X platform. He added, “No refurbishment needed to the water-cooled steel plate for next launch. Congrats to SpaceX team & contractors for engineering & building such a robust system so rapidly!”
However, after the successful launch, and after an apparent successful separation of Starship from its booster, what the FAA describes as a “mishap” occurred.
The large booster began its decent to Earth but encountered what SpaceX calls a “rapid unscheduled disassembly”, exploding over the Gulf of Mexico.
While Starship continued to travel to space, it too encountered an incident that triggered its self-destruct feature. It exploded a short time after the booster did, breaking up into thousands of pieces near the Bahamas.
“A mishap occurred during the SpaceX Starship OFT-2 launch from Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, Nov. 18,” the FAA wrote on X. “The anomaly resulted in a loss of the vehicle. No injuries or public property damage have been reported.”
The FAA said they will oversee the SpaceX-led mishap investigation to ensure SpaceX complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements. Once such an investigation is complete, they could quickly approve the next launch.
As with the first two attempts, SpaceX will attempt to send its new Starship almost around the world. After lifting off from the south Texas launch pad, it would travel east around the globe and end its flight just north of the Hawaiian Islands. There, it would crash-land into the Pacific and explode, assuming the launch and flight is successful to that point.
As part of a slew of documentation released by the FAA when SpaceX’s initial license to launch Starship was issued, included in the documentation was a re-evaluation of the 2022 “Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program at the Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas.” That document, authored by Stacey Molinich Zee, was released on April 14, 2023. This Programmatic Environmental Assessment or PEA for short details numerous specifics of the launch plans, including possible environmental impacts at the launch site around Texas and the planned splashdown site around Hawaii.
According to the updated PEA, from a height of about 75 miles, Starship would begin its passive descent back to Earth over the Pacific Ocean. During this descent, residual rocket fuel amounting to roughly 10 metric tons of Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and 4 metric tons of methane would remain with the spacecraft to the surface. The PEA says the residual fuel “represents approximately 1.1 percent of the total fill levels for the Starship main tanks.”
“Starship would impact the Pacific Ocean intact, horizontally, and at terminal velocity, and the impact would disperse settled remaining propellants and drive structural failure of the vehicle. The structural failure would immediately lead to failure of the transfer tube, which would allow the remaining LOX and methane to mix, resulting in an explosive event,” the PEA describes.
While recovery of Starship isn’t expected due to the explosive event planned, SpaceX resources will attempt to retrieve any large debris pieces from the ocean.
“Following the Starship breakup, SpaceX would have a vessel in the area of highest likelihood of debris that would identify large debris for salvage. SpaceX would use the vessel to survey the debris field for approximately of 24 to 48 hours using visual survey in the day and onboard vessel radar at night) depending on the outcome of the breakup,” the PEA says. “The initial survey area would be determined based on last known data location point received from the telemetry on the vehicle upon splashdown. Weather and ocean current data would be used to further characterize the debris field as the operation is conducted.”
During the debris recovery mission, SpaceX will coordinate with the United States Coast Guard on their endeavors.
“If debris is generated, SpaceX expects the majority of the Starship debris would sink because it is made of steel and will have sufficient mass to sink to the seafloor,” the PEA adds. Debris is expected to sink within the expected landing location which is 240 nautical miles east of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument; SpaceX says any debris is not expected to drift into the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. However, they caution that some lighter items not made of steel, such as composite overwrapped pressure vessels, may float for a short period before sinking after becoming water logged.
SpaceX also adds that though not expected and unlikely, if there is floating debris found by the vessel during the debris field survey, they would sink or recover any floating debris before it could drift into the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument by physically removing the item or puncturing the item to cause it to sink.
The PEA also evaluated potential impacts to marine life around Hawaii from such an explosive return to Earth of Starship. A consulting biologist explored marine mammals and sea turtles that could be in the splashdown zone; these creatures include assorted whale species, the Hawaiian Monk Seal, assorted turtle species, the Giant Manta Ray, and the Oceanic Whitetip Shark. Based on their assessment of marine life being “harassed” or injured as a result of this impact, they project less than 1 marine life would be impacted in this zone.
In the latest FAA approval documents, the FAA the environmental impacts of this launch all focused on the launch site. It is assumed that nothing has changed to possible environmental impacts near Hawaii.
Starship’s first flight test provided numerous lessons learned that directly contributed to several upgrades to both the vehicle and ground infrastructure to improve the probability of success on future flights. According to SpaceX, the second flight test will debut a hot-stage separation system and a new electronic Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system for Super Heavy Raptor engines, in addition to reinforcements to the pad foundation and a water-cooled steel flame deflector, among many other enhancements.
SpaceX wrote, “As we venture into new territory, we continue to appreciate all of the support and encouragement we have received from those who share our vision of a future where humanity is out exploring among the stars!”
SpaceX has used a rapid iterative development approach for this new rocket as well as their past innovative advancements, such as the Falcon rocket, Dragon crew and cargo capsule, and Starlink space-based internet service. SpaceX wrote, “Recursive improvement is essential as we work to build a fully reusable transportation system capable of carrying both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, help humanity return to the Moon, and ultimately travel to Mars and beyond.”
SpaceX is planning missions to the Moon and Mars but until Starship has a successful flight, a firm timeline for those missions won’t be disclosed.