SpaceX Starship rocket launches fourth test space flight

SpaceX will conduct a fourth test flight of its Starship rocket on Thursday as the company looks to push the giant vehicle's development past new milestones.

Elon Musk's company has a two-hour window, from 8 a.m. ET to 10 a.m. ET, to launch Starship from its Starbase facility near Boca Chica, Texas. If SpaceX is unable to launch within that window for weather or technical reasons, the company will postpone the attempt until a later date.

Assuming the launch goes as planned, Starship would reach space and then circumnavigate half the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and crashing into the Indian Ocean.

SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft, atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket, lifts off for its third launch from the company's Boca Chica launch pad during an unmanned test flight, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S., March 14, 2024.

Cheney Orr | Reuters

SpaceX has conducted three spaceflight tests of the full Starship rocket system to date, with launches in April 2023, November and March. Each of the test flights achieved more milestones than the last, but each result destroyed the rocket before the end of the flight.

The company's rocket flew the farthest on its third test flight, allowing SpaceX to test new capabilities including opening and closing the payload door once they're in space — which would be how the rocket deploys payloads like satellites on future missions – and fuel transfer during space travel. flight in a NASA demonstration.

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The Starship system is designed to be completely reusable and aims to become a new method of flying cargo and people beyond Earth. The rocket is also crucial to NASA's plan to return astronauts to the moon. SpaceX has won a multibillion-dollar contract from the agency to use Starship as a crewed lunar lander as part of NASA's Artemis moon program.

SpaceX is placing a strong emphasis on an approach that builds on “what we've learned from previous flights” in its approach to developing Starship. The company says its strategy focuses on “recursive improvement” of the rocket, with even test flights with fiery results representing progress toward its goal: a fully reusable rocket that could take humans to the moon and Mars.

Musk said last year that he expected the company to spend about $2 billion on spaceship development by 2023.

Goals for the fourth flight

SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket is prepared for a third launch from the company's Boca Chica launch pad on an unmanned test flight, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S., March 13, 2024.

Joe Schipper | Reuters

There will be no humans on board in this attempt to reach space with Starship. Company leadership has previously emphasized that SpaceX expects to fly hundreds of Starship missions before launching the rocket with any crew.

SpaceX will aim to surpass the milestones of the third test flight. The company wrote in an update on its website that the fourth flight “shifts our focus from reaching orbit to demonstrating the ability to return and reuse Starship and Super Heavy.”

“The primary objectives will be to conduct a landing fire and soft landing in the Gulf of Mexico with the Super Heavy booster, and achieve a controlled entry of the Starship,” SpaceX wrote.

The company says it has made a number of software and hardware changes to Starship aimed at increasing the rocket's reliability.

The rocket

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