Enlarge /. When Elon Paul says it will happen, it will happen.
SpaceX has taken an important step to get the green light for its spaceship vehicle to fly to an altitude 100 times higher than the previously flown prototype spaceship.
On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration placed a temporary flight restriction on SpaceX to conduct a spacecraft launch from its facility near Boca Chica Beach, South Texas. The notification will allow the Company to attempt a spaceship hop on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday between 9:00 a.m. EST (2:00 p.m. UTC) and 6:00 p.m. EST (23:00 UTC) each day. SpaceX has yet to obtain a launch license from the FAA for this flight.
The company's founder and chief engineer Elon Musk said SpaceX will attempt to fly Starship to an altitude of 15 km to demonstrate the performance of three Raptor engines in a matter of minutes. A single Raptor engine was used on the company's previous 150-meter flights in August and September.
This higher flight profile will bring Starship over nearly 90 percent of the Earth's atmosphere, allowing the company to run several new tests: assessing the performance of body flaps on Starship, moving from using propellant from the main tanks to smaller ones used for landing burns, and test the vehicle's ability to reorient itself to return to the starting location.
Chances of success?
All of this will demand a lot from the large and complex Starship vehicle. Recently, Musk said on Twitter that he expected this Starship prototype, known as the SN8 or serial number 8, to have a 1 in 3 chance of a safe landing. Of course, Musk has learned over the years the importance of setting expectations – before the first flight with Falcon 1 in March 2006, he told a reporter that the rocket had a 90 percent chance of reaching orbit. (It didn't come close to that).
So the overall chances of a successful flight are probably a little better than 1: 3. But there is still the potential for a lot to go wrong. And if so, that kind of on-the-fly learning is part of the plan. SpaceX has already nearly completed a prototype SN9 in its factory under the tents in South Texas. SN10 and SN11 are stacked; and components of SN12, 13, 14 and 15 were discovered by local observers.
Musk is ready to blow hardware to get into orbit as quickly as possible. He believes the best way to spot a weakness in his missile and shave the crowd is to fly the vehicle and find its edges.
The hardest part
Eventually, Starship will form the upper tier of SpaceX's new launch system. It will sit on top of the large Super Heavy Booster, which is expected to be powered by 35 Raptor rocket engines. This big booster has yet to fly, but SpaceX has started stacking the first prototype in Texas. SpaceX started with the second stage first as this is the hardest part of a fully reusable rocket. The company's engineers have already demonstrated the reuse of the first stage with the Falcon 9 booster.
The new vehicle will initially only be used for cargo as SpaceX is still a long way from making the interior of Starship habitable for humans. But even building a fully reusable vehicle that can lift 150 tons into low-earth orbit would be a miracle. That is more throwing capacity than the Apollo program's Saturn V rocket.
In theory, a successful jump this weekend or with SN9 a few weeks later could keep SpaceX on track to attempt an orbital launch next year with a full stack of the Super Heavy Booster and Starship rocket.
The weather conditions for the flight test this weekend look excellent. After passing a cold front, South Texas will see clear skies, light winds, and moderately high temperatures in the low 60s. Most likely, SpaceX will host a webcast of the experiment. Otherwise, there are several excellent streams available. Trevor Mahlmann will also be on site for Ars to document the flight in photos and videos.