Editor’s note: Updated at 4:30 pm EST (2030 GMT) after the delay.
SpaceX canceled the launch of its next test rocket from the Starship on Friday afternoon, with the next opportunity for an atmospheric test flight expected Monday. SpaceX plans to launch and land the missile at the company’s South Texas development complex after losing three previous prototypes in explosions.
The specially developed Starship test vehicle – designated SN11 – will be the fourth full-size Starship test vehicle to take off from the SpaceX test site in Cameron County, Texas. Like three previous Starship test flights in December and February and earlier this month, the prototype will attempt to fly at an altitude of about 33,000 feet, or 10,000 meters, before returning to Earth for a vertical landing with the help of missiles.
The SN11 is the latest in a series of prototypes of SpaceX’s next-generation launch vehicle that will eventually stand 400 feet, or about 120 meters, and carry more than 220,000 pounds, or 100 metric tons, of cargo into low Earth orbit. This is a lift capacity greater than any missile in the world.
With life support and refueling systems in space, spacecraft can carry heavy payloads and people beyond Earth’s orbit. SpaceX is one of three industry teams with a NASA contract to design and refine concepts for a human-rated lunar lander for the space agency’s Artemis Moon program.
The Starship program ultimately aims to take passengers and supplies to deep space destinations to Mars, according to Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX.
The Starship will consist of the top portion of the massive orbiting rocket, which SpaceX also calls the Starship. The first stage booster is called Super Heavy. Both compounds are designed to be completely reusable.
SpaceX confirmed plans for the Starship SN11 test flight Friday on its website, but Musk tweeted on Friday afternoon that the company would “stop” from launching “until Monday, probably.”
“Additional log-ins are required. “We’re doing our best to land and recover completely,” Musk tweeted.
The company says it plans to provide a live video broadcast of the spacecraft’s launch and landing.
SpaceX tested the Starship missile on the launch pad Friday morning, clearing the way for final preparations for the launch before managers finally canceled the test flight.
The 164-foot (50 m) Starship SN11 vehicle will be powered on takeoff by three methane-fueled Raptor engines and produce over a million pounds of thrust at full capacity.
After climbing away from the launch pad, the Starship will shut down its three Raptor engines in sequence before the missile reaches the top of its trajectory.
“The SN11 will perform a propulsion transition to the internal head cabinets, which carry an impulse to descend, before reorienting itself to re-enter and aerodynamically controlled descent,” SpaceX wrote on its website.
SpaceX writes: “The Starship’s prototype will drop under active aerodynamic control, achieved by the independent movement of two of the front and rear panels on the vehicle.” All four panels are operated by an on-board flight computer to control the position of the spacecraft during flight and enable accurate landing at the intended location.
“The SN11 Raptor will ignite again when the vehicle attempts to make a landing maneuver directly before landing on the landing pad adjacent to the launch pad.”
The entire journey is expected to take between six and seven minutes. This time, SpaceX hopes Starship will remain intact.
The hard landing on a successful test flight on December 9 was successful with low pressure from the vertical tanks feeding the vehicle’s Raptor engines for critical combustion just before landing, and one of the Raptor engines failing to ignite again to burn the landing on a February 2 test flight.
The SN10 missile made its first soft landing of the full-size Starship at the end of a test flight on March 3, but the missile detonated minutes later.
Despite the explosion, the Starship SN10 test flight appeared to be a major achievement of SpaceX’s Starship test flight program. SpaceX aims to build on that experience with Flight SN11.
SpaceX’s Starship program was an early focus on building infrastructure at the Boca Chica test site, located on the Texas Gulf Coast near the US-Mexico border. Earlier this month, SpaceX completed stacking its first Super Heavy Booster, which Musk said was a “production explorer.”
SpaceX collected its first Super Heavy test article, called the BN1, to help learn how to build and transport the 229-foot (70 meters) first stage, which is itself the height of the Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX uses for its operational satellite to launch.
According to Musk, the second Super Heavy booster, which is being manufactured but not yet assembled, is designed to fly, most likely upon launching a suborbital test.
SpaceX aims to launch its first fully stacked Super Heavy and Starship in an orbital launch attempt from South Texas in July. “This is our goal,” Musk wrote in a tweet.
Attempting an orbital launch by July is a strong goal, like many timelines set by SpaceX’s founder and CEO.
The orbital version of the Starship will feature six Raptor engines, including three engines with large bell-shaped nozzles optimized for higher efficiency in space vacuum. The orbiting spacecraft will also contain a heat shield to survive back in the atmosphere.
During the orbital launch attempt, the reusable Super Heavy will detach from the spacecraft – serving as an upper stage and carrier in space – and return to Earth for a vertical landing. The spacecraft will continue in orbit and deploy its payloads or travel to its destination in deep space, and finally return to Earth to fly again.
SpaceX’s long-term plans for the Starship’s operations include the use of a floating launch pad parked in the ocean. SpaceX is converting a decommissioned offshore drilling rig for a future Super Heavy and Starship launch facility.
The Super Heavy booster will be powered by 28 Raptor engines, producing about 16 million pounds of thrust, more than twice the power generated by the five booster engines on NASA’s Saturn 5 lunar rocket.
The entire Super Heavy and Starship range is about 30 feet (9 meters) wide, which is about one and a half times the radius of the Boeing 747 Jumbo.
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