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SpaceX sends Starship to orbit — next launch will try to bring it back

SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket could lift off for a fourth time on June 5, with the primary goal of evaluating the reusable heat shield for the second stage as it attempts to safely re-enter the atmosphere for the first time.

“There are still a lot of tough problems to solve with this vehicle, but the biggest remaining challenge is making a reusable orbital return heat shield, which has never been done before,” Chief Executive Elon Musk said on his social media platform X.

His post echoes comments he made earlier this month, when he noted that the main goal of the next Starship test is to “achieve maximum reentry heating.”

That means putting the rocket’s new heat shield, made up of about 18,000 hexagonal ceramic tiles, to the test. The tiles are designed to protect the second stage, also known as Starship, from the extreme temperatures it will encounter during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Musk said one of the biggest problems is the fragility of the entire system: “In most places, we can’t protect against a single tile failing,” he said. That means a single damaged or faulty tile could mean disaster.

As Musk noted in his post, surviving re-entry is only part of the puzzle. The company also needs to build an “entirely new supply chain” for the high-performance heat shield and produce it in high volumes.

It’s a tricky problem, but solving it will bring them closer to the holy grail of launch vehicles: full reusability. SpaceX has made significant strides toward reusability with its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket—it has flown 56 times this year alone—but while the company has recovered boosters, the second stage has been expended in its target orbit. By reusing two stages of its rocket, SpaceX hopes to reduce costs to a fraction of today’s while getting more mass into orbit on a single launch. (SpaceX’s Transporter rideshare missions cost $6,000 per kilogram.)

If all goes according to plan, the company will demonstrate the ability to return Starship to Earth via a controlled reentry and soft landing in the Indian Ocean. SpaceX also plans to return a booster called Super Heavy via ocean landing. It will be one step closer to putting into service the largest and most powerful launch system ever built, ready to carry cargo and eventually astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond.

The next Starship launch will be the fourth in a series of orbital flight tests that began last April. Before launching, SpaceX must obtain a commercial launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency responsible for regulating commercial launch operations. The FAA also oversees investigations into rocket launches that go wrong for any reason, so the FAA has been working closely with SpaceX throughout the Starship test campaign.

Previous Starship launches have certainly had problems: The first two ended in mid-air explosions, and the third ended with the Super Heavy rocket and Starship likely breaking apart before falling into the ocean. But for SpaceX, which takes an iterative approach to hardware development, each test was ultimately a success because they provided engineers with data about the rocket in a real flight environment. And each mission went one step further than the last: On the third flight, the rocket lifted off with a full engine burn, and Starship finally reached orbit for the first time.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to land the Super Heavy booster and Starship second stage at its launch site in southeast Texas, where they can be quickly refurbished and returned to the pad.

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