Starship on the launch tower, as a pair of jet planes pass by.Credit…Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For its third test flight, Starship aims to fly part of the way around the Earth, starting from SpaceX’s launch site in Boca Chica Village, Texas, and splashing down in the Indian Ocean.

The earlier test flights — both of which ended in explosions — aimed to come down in waters off Hawaii. SpaceX said it had set the new flight path to allow for safe testing of things it hadn’t done before with the Starship vehicle.

The journey will start at the site that SpaceX calls Starbase, which is a few miles north of where Texas and Mexico meet along the Gulf of Mexico. The rocket, nearly 400 feet tall, will be mounted next to a launch tower that is about 480 feet tall. It will be filled with methane and liquid oxygen propellants during the hours before liftoff.

Three seconds before launch, computers will begin to ignite the 33 engines in the Super Heavy rocket booster beneath Starship.

Starship and Super Heavy will begin their ascent over the Gulf. At 52 seconds into the flight, SpaceX says, the vehicle will experience the heaviest atmospheric stress of its trip, a moment flight engineers call max-q.

If the stainless steel spacecraft survives that stress, the next key moment will occur 2 minutes and 42 seconds into flight, when most of the Super Heavy booster’s engines power down. Seconds later, the upper Starship vehicle will begin “hot-staging,” or lighting up its engines before separating from Super Heavy.

Super Heavy’s journey will end about seven minutes after launch. SpaceX would typically aim to return the massive rocket booster to the launch site for a vertical landing. But for the test flight, the spent Super Heavy will perform a series of maneuvers before firing its engines one last time to slow its descent into the Gulf of Mexico.

As Super Heavy is descending, Starship will be gaining altitude. About eight and a half minutes into its flight, its engines will switch off. It will then begin coasting around the Earth.

While floating through space, Starship will attempt several things that the spacecraft has never done. Nearly 12 minutes into the flight, it will open a door that in the future could deploy satellites and other cargo into space. About 12 minutes later, it will transfer propellants from one tank to another while in space, a technique needed for future journeys to the moon and beyond. Then, 40 minutes into the flight, Starship will relight one if its engines while in space.

If the spacecraft makes it through those experiments, the conclusion of Starship’s journey will start at about the 49-minute mark. The spacecraft is set to pivot horizontally into a belly-flop to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. If it survives the extreme temperatures, Starship will splash down 64 minutes after it left Texas. The company has said in the past that it expects the belly-flop ocean landing to end in an explosion.

After SpaceX completes its testing campaign, future Starship flights will return to the Texas Starbase site after they complete their missions in orbit. SpaceX is also building a launch tower for Starship at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where flights could one day launch and land, including the Artemis III mission that NASA plans to use to return American astronauts to the moon’s surface.



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