SpaceX Starship Launch – Analysis

On Saturday, November 18, 2023, SpaceX’s Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, had its second integrated flight test.

In this article, we’ll recap the major events that took place during the Starship launch and what that means for the future of Starship. 

Leading Up To the Launch

On November 10th, Starship was detached from Booster 9 to fix tiles that fell from the ship after it was fully stacked. Workers replaced the damaged tiles in the following days while SpaceX awaited a launch license from the FAA. 

On November 14th, the US Fish and Wildlife Service submitted the final report to the FAA after completing an environmental review of the Starbase launch site. This included an investigation into the environmental effects of the newly installed Water Deluge system designed to protect launch pad infrastructure from heat and vibration during engine ignition and launch events.

The agency concluded that the Starship launch and subsequent damage to the pad infrastructure in April had no long-term negative effects on the surrounding ecology. They added that water released from the Deluge system is not expected to change the salinity of the existing mud flats or reduce/modify the piping plover or Red Knot habitat surrounding the launch site.

Along with the environmental investigation performed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the FAA also researched the safety aspect of Starship’s launch procedures.

The agency determined SpaceX met all safety, environmental policy, and financial responsibility requirements.

The completion of the FAA and FWS investigations paved the way for Starship’s permit to fly for a second time. SpaceX received the modified Starship launch license from the FAA on Wednesday (11/15), which, similar to the first launch license, only covered a single integrated flight test.

After the license was received, SpaceX stacked Ship 25 atop Booster 9 and began the final round of preparation for launch on November 17th. However, on November 16th, Elon Musk posted on Twitter that the launch had been delayed by 24 hours, as SpaceX would need to replace a grid fin actuator on the booster. 

To replace the faulty actuator, teams destroyed the ship and later removed the hot stage ring from the top of the booster. Although Musk indicated that a single actuator needed to be replaced, teams replaced three of the four actuators.

It is possible that issues were discovered later on with the other two actuators. After the actuators were replaced, the grid fins were tested to ensure they performed as expected.

After the works were complete, the hot stage ring was reinstalled, and later, the ship was restacked atop the booster for launch. The 24-hour delay caused by the actuator issue gave SpaceX a little more time to finish all the preparations needed for launch day.

Launch Day

On the launch day, two hours before liftoff, the flight director conducted a go/no-go poll and gave commands for propellant loading. It took nearly an hour and a half to fully load the ship and the booster with 4,600 tons of liquid oxygen and methane propellant.

The Raptor engine chill-down procedure began at T-minus 19 minutes and 40 seconds. During that phase, a portion of the propellant was passed through the booster’s engines and the ship to condition them to the right temperature before ignition.

Next, the vehicle went into internal power, and the onboard computer took over the countdown sequence.

At T-minus 10 seconds, the flame deflector began flowing water under the launch mount. The Raptor startup sequence started at the T-minus 3-second mark, followed by engine ignition.

The launch mount clamps were released when the engines reached the required thrust level, sending the 121-meter-tall rocket into space with a mighty roar.

It was a spectacular and surreal sight. Starship kept climbing, and unlike the first flight test, none of the booster engines failed during liftoff and descent. The rocket surpassed the speed of sound and experienced maximum aerodynamic pressure 68 seconds after liftoff. The launch vehicle endured the harshest structural loads of its ascent into space during Max Q.

Two minutes and 43 seconds after liftoff, all of the booster engines, except the inner three, cut off as planned. Five seconds later, Starship ignited all six engines and smoothly separated from the booster stage.

It was the first time SpaceX had ever attempted the hot staging technique.

After a quick flip maneuver, the booster reignited its inner engines for a boost backburn. However, three of the inner engines failed to reignite, and one of the engines shut down unexpectedly.

Later, all of the engines rapidly shut down, and the booster exploded over the Gulf of Mexico. The flight termination system might have been triggered, as SpaceX determined that the booster could not be returned safely due to multiple engine failures.

Meanwhile, Ship 25 continued burning its engines for more than 6 minutes and attained an altitude of 150 km. The ship’s engines shut down as planned 8 minutes after liftoff; however, SpaceX lost telemetry data from the spacecraft shortly after.

Post-Flight Analysis

During the post-flight discussion, SpaceX engineer John Inser explained that they lost contact with the vehicle at the end of the second-stage engine burn, so the automated flight termination system was triggered to prevent the vehicle from veering off course, bringing an early end to the test flight.

A video surfaced online a few hours after the launch, claiming to be Ship 25 re-entering Earth’s atmosphere over Puerto Rico. The authenticity of the video has not yet been verified.

If all had gone according to plan, Starship would have continued accelerating toward space, completed nearly one full lap of Earth, and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

Even though the vehicle didn’t make it all the way, the flight made significant progress compared to the first test flight in April: there were no in-flight booster engine failures, and stage separation and second-stage engine ignition went as planned.

The success can be attributed to upgrades such as the new hot-stage separation system and the Raptor electric thrust vector control system. The water Deluge system also appeared to have performed flawlessly, as no big rocks or concrete debris were seen flying off the Launchpad during engine ignition and liftoff.

The Launchpad looked fine compared to its condition after the April launch; little to no damage was done to the Launchpad and the Deluge system steel plates. Meanwhile, the Starship’s quick disconnect arm sustained some minor damage that should hopefully be fixed soon.

The water storage tank at the tank farm also incurred some damage, which might have resulted from debris impact.

Despite ending earlier than expected, the mission gave SpaceX engineers valuable data that would enable them to make the necessary modifications and upgrades to the launch vehicle before the third attempt.

The Future of Starship Launches

Following the launch, the FAA issued a statement stating that there had been no reports of injuries or damage to public property and that they would oversee a mishap investigation into the flight.

Once the investigation is complete, the FAA will give SpaceX corrective actions to complete before the company can receive a license for future Starship launches.

The prototypes for the third flight are slated to be Starship 28 and Super Heavy Booster 10, both of which have several upgrades over the current vehicles.

Static fire testing of Ship 28 and Booster 10 to prepare them for the launch will begin in the near future.

A new ship was fully stacked at the Starbase production site lately. The A section of Starship 32 was moved inside the high bay on Thursday, October 16th.

Later, it was joined with the already stacked sections, completing the basic structure of Ship 32. Next, teams will install the AFT flaps and connect all wiring and plumbing to prepare the ship for cryo-proof tests.

At MASSIE, several metal pieces resembling the Starship launch tower columns and beams have arrived at Starbase lately. Plans to build a second launch tower at the Starbase have been underway for the past 3 years.

Several launch tower sections are already prefabricated at SpaceX’s Roberts Road facility at Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX plans to ship the completed section from Roberts Road and build the remaining tower sections at Starbase.

The new tower will be near the existing launch tower for the Starbase launch site expansion plan released in 2020. SpaceX is also building a Starship launch tower at Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A.

The basic structure of the tower has already been completed. There has been no significant progress in the tower and launchpad works for the past several months. A second launch tower at Starbase and the launch tower at Kennedy will increase the cadence of Starship launches, helping to speed up Musk’s goal of colonizing Mars.

Overall, the second integrated test of Starship was fairly successful and I am excited to see the future of Starship. 

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