WASHINGTON — SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said a fuel dump destroyed the Starship's upper stage on a test flight in November, giving him confidence that the vehicle can reach orbit on its next launch.
In that Nov. 18 launch, the spacecraft's upper stage, or ship, was nearing the end of its burn to put it on a long suborbital trajectory when contact was lost. SpaceX webcast hosts said it appeared the automated flight termination system had been activated, but did not provide a reason why, and the company has provided few details since.
At a recent event at SpaceX's Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas, Video posted by SpaceX on social media on January 12Musk said the failure was related to venting the liquid oxygen fuel near the end of the burn. He said this vent was only necessary because the car was not carrying any load.
“The second flight actually almost reached orbit,” he said. “If it had a payload, it would have reached orbit because the reason it didn't reach orbit is because we vented the liquid oxygen, and the liquid oxygen eventually led to a fire and an explosion.”
This venting would not have been necessary if the ship contained payload, he said, perhaps because it would have been consumed by the vehicle's Raptor engines in order to reach orbit. He did not explain how the venting led to the fire, or discuss the Super Heavy stage exploding shortly after the stage separated.
Musk said the failure mode gave him confidence for the spacecraft's next test flight. “I think we have a good chance of getting into orbit with the third flight,” he said.
This third flight is currently expected to launch in February, according to SpaceX's Jessica Jensen during a NASA press conference on January 9, pending receipt of an updated launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Musk described a more ambitious flight plan for the mission with additional Starship testing.
“We want to get into orbit and we want to burn an engine in space from the upper tank” located on the top of the vehicle, he said. Doing so would “prove that we can reliably deorbit.”
The flight will also test the transfer of propellant from this head tank to the main fuel tank, a demonstration that is part of the NASA Tipping Point award as a milestone toward transferring propellant from one Starship vehicle to another. The first test of ship-to-ship transfer of propellant is scheduled to take place, he said, “hopefully by the end of this year, but certainly by next year.”
Musk said SpaceX will test a “Pez dispenser” payload door that will be used on subsequent flights to deploy full-sized Starlink V2 satellites, which are much larger than the small V2 satellites currently launched on the Falcon 9. “We hope to do that,” he said of the satellite launch. Industrial Starlink V2 by the end of this year.
These Starship tests will be conducted as SpaceX continues to increase the launch rate of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. The company has carried out 96 Falcon launches in 2023, and Musk said the company plans “150 or so flights” in 2024. Company executives previously set a goal of 144 launches, or 12 flights per month, for 2024 .
This flight rate will include a planned shift of fewer than 24 launches between launches from the same platform by the end of the year. Musk added that SpaceX was working on qualifying Falcon 9 boosters to perform 40 flights. So far, the company has launched the same booster up to 19 times.
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