SpaceX is preparing for the second test flight of Starship, the giant rocket being built to take NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon and Elon Musk’s Mars ambitions. The Federal Aviation Administration granted regulatory approval for the launch on Wednesday.
Although the company had planned a Friday launch, Musk announced Thursday on X, the social networking site formerly known as Twitter that he also owns, that SpaceX was changing the flight to Saturday because a part of the rocket needed to be replaced.
Here’s what you need to know about the launch.
When is it released and how can I watch it?
Starship launches from Boca Chica, Texas, a location on the Gulf of Mexico coast near the city of Brownsville that SpaceX has dubbed Starbase.
The flight could take off as early as 8 a.m. ET on Saturday. SpaceX will broadcast the launch live on X.
There is a 20-minute window during which SpaceX can launch. Test missions often take off later in a launch window while flight managers work to ensure systems are functioning as designed.
If the flight is completely successful, Starship will complete a partial trip around the Earth before belly-flopping into the Pacific Ocean near the island of Kauai.
What is Starship?
For NASA, Starship is a future lunar module for astronauts on Artemis missions. But for Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, the vehicle is central to his vision of transporting colonists to the red planet. This means Starship has to be big.
Stacked atop what SpaceX calls its Super Heavy booster, the Starship rocket system will be, in virtually every way, the biggest and most powerful ever.
It’s the tallest rocket ever built: 394 feet tall, or nearly 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, including the pedestal.
It is designed to be completely reusable. The Super Heavy booster is expected to land in a similar fashion to SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets, and Starship will be able to return from space by belly-swaying through the atmosphere like a skydiver before rotating to an upright position to land.
What went wrong during Starship’s first flight?
First, there was the huge brown cloud that spread beneath the rocket as its engines fired. It contained dirt, rocks and even boulder-sized chunks of concrete that the force of the rocket’s thrust had excavated beneath the launch pedestal.
And then, as the Starship rose into the air, it tipped to the side. Three of the 33 booster engines failed to start and the unbalanced thrust caused the inclined climb.
The Starship passed the launch tower, and for much of the next minute the flight appeared to be going well. But there were signs that more was wrong. Cameras pointed at the bottom of the ship appeared to show that six of the engines had failed. The booster was supposed to separate from the upper stage at 2 minutes and 52 seconds into the flight, but this never happened. Instead, Starship began to slowly tip over, and a minute later, explosives meant to destroy a rocket that had gone off course finally exploded.
A week later, Musk offered preliminary answers about what went wrong during a Twitter Q&A, now called X.
“Some good news here,” he said. “The structural margins of the vehicle appear to be better than we expected”, pointing to the moments of the flight. “The vehicle is actually doing somersaults at the end and still remains intact,” he said.
What did SpaceX change for this Starship flight?
At first glance, the Starship rocket on Friday’s launch pad looks like the same giant vehicle launched in April. It is not.
The biggest change is something called “hot staging”. Starship’s upper stage engines will fire while the booster is still attached and some of the booster engines are still running, potentially improving the rocket’s performance.
SpaceX also made changes to the rocket’s design to prevent fuel leaks and fires, and made improvements to the flight termination system that took too long to destroy the Starship.
For the launch pad, to prevent the rocket engines from destroying the concrete below and kicking up another cloud of debris and dust, SpaceX added a structure consisting of two plates with holes in the top plate. “Basically a huge, super strong steel shower pointing upwards,” Musk said.
Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water sprayed upward from this system will act as a cushion that absorbs the heat and force of the rocket engines, protecting the steel and concrete.