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SpaceX set for its third major Starship flight test on Wednesday

Starship SN10 on the pad on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.
Enlarge / Starship SN10 on the pad on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Trevor Mahlmann

SpaceX may launch its third full-scale Starship prototype—named Serial Number 10, or SN10—as early as Wednesday from South Texas.

With this vehicle, the company will seek to successfully land the Starship vehicle where the last two versions, SN8 and SN9, each failed in the final seconds of the mission to stabilize themselves for a controlled landing. Both flights ended in fire at the landing site. SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk has estimated about a 60 percent chance of success this time—which suggests the probability is a little bit higher than that, given his penchant for setting expectations.

Similar to the previous two flights, which took place in December and early February, SpaceX will launch its Starship vehicle to an altitude of about 10 km under the power of three Raptor engines. There, it will switch from its main propellant tanks to smaller ones near the top of the vehicle and perform a “belly flop” maneuver, reorienting itself to simulate returning from orbit. This allows Starship to both bleed off velocity as well as ensure its reusability without a massive heat shield.

The challenge will be to successfully reignite at last two of the three Raptor engines near the ground to slow the vehicle’s descent and make a controlled landing. There will be guaranteed entertainment, regardless.

SpaceX has already received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for this launch, and the window opens at 9am (15:00 UTC) local time in South Texas. As always, preparatory activities will likely delay the test further into the window, and there may be unplanned holds or the need to de-tank and refuel as part of the test program. But the weather looks excellent, with clear and sunny skies in South Texas.

The test comes a day after Yusaku Maezawa announced an update to the “dearMoon” mission he has purchased on Starship. This flight will send the Japanese billionaire and about 10 other people on a ride out to the Moon, and back, for about a week-long mission on Starship. This is expected to be the first human flight beyond low-Earth orbit on the vehicle and should go farther from Earth than any previous human mission.

Maezawa said he was holding an online competition to “join the crew” and welcomed people to apply. He will be choosing “talented” and “creative” people who want to inspire others about space, share the journey with those back on Earth, and who are willing to be good crew members.

The video announcement included some comments from Musk about the readiness of Starship for a mission that could launch as early as 2023. “I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023, and that it will be safe enough for human transport by 2023,” Musk said. “It’s looking very promising.”

We’re not entirely sure about the 2023 date, but it does sound fun. Maezawa admitted that he was a little nervous about the flight but said he was more curious to find out what’s out there. None of this will happen, of course, until SpaceX safely flies Starship to orbit, and back, dozens of times. The iterative steps toward that goal will continue with Wednesday’s flight test.

Video of the flight will be embedded below when the SpaceX webcast goes live.

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