SpaceX is trying to carry out this Saturday (18) in Boca Chica, Texas, the second launch of its Starship vehicle. The flight window is 20 minutes, starting at 10am (Brasília time).
It is the most powerful rocket ever built in history, with its 120 meters and 39 engines (33 in the first stage and 6 in the second), and the company promises that there will be no shortage of excitement. The launcher has many modifications compared to the last one that flew, exemplifying the design philosophy dictated by Elon Musk, which favors flight tests, even using unrefined prototypes with no guarantee of success. The results obtained from these experiments are used to guide vehicle modifications with each new attempt.
In the first orbital scale flight attempt, which took place on April 20, Booster 7 (first stage) and Ship 24 (second stage) flew. The numbering denotes how many prototypes of each were developed (and sometimes built) before those that flew. Previous versions of both served to improve the design, manufacturing and ground testing of some of the systems, in addition to conducting high-altitude flights of the second stage, with subsequent landing.
For this second flight, we had Booster 9 and Ship 25, which, according to Musk, include more than a thousand modifications.
In April, SpaceX treated it as a success if the launcher left the platform without destroying it – which in fact happened. But the flight was far from reaching Earth orbit, ending untimely about four minutes after launch, with the failure of several of the first stage engines. Now, with the improvements, Musk estimates the chance of orbiting the Earth at 60%.
Some of the changes were implemented to meet the demands of the FAA (the agency that regulates civil aviation and commercial rocket flights in the USA), others are natural improvements to systems that were already foreseen even before the first flight.
Among the biggest innovations are a new “hot” stage separation system (in which the upper stage engines are activated before separation), a technique little used in American vehicles, but more common in Russian rockets, and a new electronic system direction control of the first stage nozzles, in order to better control the rocket’s trajectory. The self-destruct system was also upgraded, as the previous device failed on the first flight.
In the ground systems, there were also major upgrades, the most notable of which was the installation of a water deluge system, to cool the platform during the takeoff process. This time, there was much less debris resulting from the firing of the engines.
The demonstration begins to pave the way for the spacecraft that NASA will use to take astronauts to the surface of the Moon in the second half of this decade. The telemetry data will still be analyzed in the coming days to find out exactly what went right and what went wrong on this second flight. And from now on the pace of flights should accelerate.
SpaceX had to slow down its development pace in recent months while waiting for authorization from the FAA to return to launches, but with the agency’s approval granted last Wednesday (15), the company should speed up testing again.
This is a necessity, as many technologies will still need to be demonstrated before Starship is ready to take astronauts to the Moon. In this Saturday’s flight, the objective is merely to reach space, but it will be necessary to demonstrate in future tests the ability to recover the two stages of the vehicle, as well as perform refueling in orbit. More than a hundred Starship launches are expected to be made before anyone can board it for a spaceflight.
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