SpaceX Targets First Starship Orbital Flight in August

SpaceX is done testing Booster 3 and is working on Starship 20 and Booster 4. SpaceX Starship 4 could be ready for orbital flight testing by August 5th. Felix at What About It? is indicating the activity and rumors of a SpaceX orbital launch test target date of August 5th. This would likely be the start of fueling tests and other pre-launch activity.

Above is a rendering of Starship 20 with its heat shield stack onto Booster 4. Rendering from RGV Aerial Photography.

The new fins for Starship 20 are thinner and lighter.

SOURCES- What About It?, SpaceX, Elon Musk, RGV Aerial Photography, Starship Gazer, Nextspaceflight, LabPadre
Written by Brian Wang,

19 thoughts on “SpaceX Targets First Starship Orbital Flight in August”

  1. If it allows more time, that may be a plus. My guess is that they intend to belly flop as late as possible, same as on Earth, so there wouldn't be any actual increased safety margin.

    However, with 100T of payload on board while landing on Mars, they will need more time to kill their velocity, both aerobraking and propulsive landing. They can maybe test the "heavy payload" aerobraking in Earth atmosphere, but probably not the "heavy payload" propulsive landing?

  2. I think the higher belly flop is a bit of a plus, because it gives you more time to deal with ignition glitches. But it's not a big plus.

    They'll probably want some sort of weather satellite around Mars to send back up to date atmospheric data.

  3. Some possible issues:
    Mars' atmosphere's density and depth are variable due to summer ice cap sublimation.

    Mars' gravity is 'lumpier' than Earths – enough to affect orbits. Not sure if it's enough to affect a fast moving Starship that much, as variations are relatively small. But if it does…

    Doing belly flop higher much higher isn't really a 'plus' – it's just a requirement of coming in at a higher terminal velocity and needing enough time to do the flip to vertical and cancel the vertical velocity. (But yeah, this is probably very predictable, so long as all rockets reignite and thrust as required.)

    While debris presumably won't make orbit if the main rockets are used to land as they are on Earth, it will kick up more than landing on a pad would, with damage to the ship being possible. Early landings may have to be widely separated at minimum – and maybe lunar Starship -style 'high-up and angled' rockets will have to be added to the Mars ship as well?

    Some Mars landing approaches call for the ship to land or at least aerobrake immediately rather than entering orbit propulsively. What happens if there's a planet-wide dust storm when a ship arrives to attempt that?

  4. "Aero-capture and landing on Mars seems different enough to require its own cycles of test and improvement."

    The three main differences are,
    1) Gravity
    2) Thinner atmosphere
    3) Much deeper atmosphere, due to #1.

    1 and 3 are advantageous, 2 is arguable either way, but probably nets out negative.

    My expectation is that you can test the Starship reentry at comparable speeds and atmospheric density above Earth, and having a pretty good idea of the atmospheric distribution around Mars, come in the first time and have a success, because you'll already have confirmation of the aerodynamics. Might even use an autopilot with learning software, that autotunes its response on the way down.

    Due to the thinner atmosphere, terminal velocity for Mars is about 5 times higher than for Earth for a similar object, so a lot more retropropulsion is needed. The plus side is that the belly flop ends much higher above the ground, so more margin.

  5. The main benefit of using propellant as payload for test landings is that there's no need for a new way to move mass from one Starship to another – fuel transfer will have to be working before the first Starship Mars mission.

    Secondarily, one might aim to pre-land enough fuel and oxygen for a crew Starship to return to Earth.

    But AFAIK, tankers are just Starships with left-over fuel in their tanks as payload. They would have a very different mass distribution, so successfully landing a tanker might not mean that a loaded cargo or crew Starship could replicate that success, given the heavy reliance on aerobraking.

    Maybe test ships could be modified with extra tanks in the forward section, to better emulate the mass distribution of cargo and crew ships. Still, it'd take around a half a dozen landings to get enough propellant on the surface for a crew return Starship.

    They could just land enough methane for Earth return. That might take as few as 2 landings. Then send and land a Starship with a small nuclear power plant and hardware to make the oxygen from Mars' atmosphere. The first crew on Mars could deploy solar panels and mine water to avoid the need to bring more methane and nuclear power for subsequent crew missions.

  6. Nice to hear a Company announce plans for a launch in days and not years. If Boca is not approved by the USA then I would start to worry about Musk moving things to Malaysia. As I remember he did buy up land there for a future launch facility. IMO this mission is every bit as important for the future security of the USA as the development of the A Bomb in the 40's. China will not be stalling while Washington makes up their minds.

  7. SpaceX will probably perfect Starship landing on Earth from orbit over the next few years, after some number of cycles of testing and improvement.

    Aero-capture and landing on Mars seems different enough to require its own cycles of test and improvement. But if every cycle takes 26 months due to use of Hohmann orbit transfer, progress toward Mars landing would be very slow. They need a way to iterate faster.

    There are transfer orbits that take longer but can launch at pretty much any time – such as Ballistic Capture. That would give maybe 9-14 months for a Starship to get to Mars – better than 26 months, but not by a lot.

    Or, SpaceX could send four or more 'payload' (uncrewed) Starships (each with 100T of payload) to Mars orbit. If the first lands successfully, they keep landing them to prove reliability. If not, they can send improved test Starships with no payload on much faster transfers to rendezvous and transfer payload from the payload Starships before attempting to land from Mars orbit. This might reduce the cycle time to something like 3-6 months. SpaceX could also send different variants of Starship without waiting for the results of previous test ships, to shave the cycle time even more.

    (Payload might be large containers of useful cargo transferred from one clamshell Starship to another by a robotic arm.)

  8. A brilliant scheme.
    It makes it much harder to call him out when the forecast dates are inevitably late.

  9. That's possible, I suppose. There does seem to be behind the scenes pressure to slow SpaceX down.

  10. I have a feeling that the FAA authorization will not be given as soon as August, and they might not ever authorize such a launch from the Boca Chica location. I hope I'm wrong about that, but that is what I expect. I imagine the FAA will try to get SpaceX to do the orbital launch from Cape Canaveral. My crystal ball is very cloudy about the prospects of getting authorization for launching from a converted oil platform.

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