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Historic Achievement: Largest Rocket Reaches Orbit and Splashes Down in Two Giant Pieces

June 7, 2024 3:09 am in by

Starship is the largest flying object ever to be constructed and is designed to be fully and rapidly reusable with a payload to low earth orbit of around 100 to 150 tonnes. When stacked, Starship stands at 121 metres tall, and when fully fueled, has a mass of approximately 5,000 tonnes. This along with it’s 33 raptor engines on the first stage creates 7,590 tonnes of thrust; making it the most powerful and most massive flying object humanity as ever constructed.

In other words, it is currently humanity’s best hope to become a multiplanetary species.

Milestones in Human Space Flight

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1961 – First Human in Space – Yuri Gagarin

1965 – First Spacewalk – Alexey Leonov

1968 – First Crewed Spacecraft To Reach The Moon – Apollo 8

1969 – Humans Walk on the Moon – Apollo 11

1975 – Space Race Adversaries Meet in Orbit – Apollo-Soyuz

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1971 – First Space Station – Salyut 1

1981 – Reusable Shuttle – Columbia

2000 – International Space Station – ISS

2010 – Private Spaceship in Orbit – Dragon

2020’s – Reusable First and Second Stage Rocket – Starship

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Starship Flight 4

The fourth integrated flight test of SpaceX’s Starship, known as IFT-4, involved Starship Ship 29 as the upper stage, paired with the Super Heavy Booster 11.

The primary objectives for this flight were for the Super Heavy booster to simulate a landing at a designated “virtual tower” just above the Gulf of Mexico, and for the Starship to endure the intense heat of atmospheric re-entry. Notably, this test marks the first time that both the Starship and Super Heavy successfully re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down safely.

Illustration via https://www.spacex.com/launches/mission/?missionId=starship-flight-4

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Overview

Launching from Starbase, located near Boca Chica, Texas, two successful water landings is exactly what SpaceX hoped for during this fourth flight test of Starship.

Within seconds spectators saw and felt the shockwaves from the working 32 out of 33 Raptor Engines.

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Around 60 seconds from lift off Starship reached Max Q (the moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket). A few seconds later the vehicle reached supersonic velocities, roughly 1,200 km/h (at this altitude).

2 minutes 23 seconds: The vehicle pitched down range with the full craft travelling at around 4,200km/h.

2 minutes 47 seconds: The engines on the Superheavy start to turn off approaching the hot stage manoeuvre. 5,530km/h.

2 minutes 53 seconds: The hot stage initiates and shortly after the boost back burn begins.

3 minutes 55 seconds: The boost back burn complete, starship continues at over 6,900km/h at 110km above sea level.

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7 minutes 10 seconds: The engines on the Superheavy reignite to provide the final deceleration, whilst passing through a layer of cloud, revealing the waves below.

7 minutes 30 seconds: Superheavy booster makes a soft splash down in the Atlantic Ocean, all while being livestreamed via Starlink.

8 minutes 39 seconds: Starship engines cut off as it reaches (near) orbital velocity of 26,498 km/h at an altitude of 151 km.

45 minutes 15 seconds: Plasma starts to appear around the flaps.

57 minutes 24 seconds: Plasma burns through the flap, all while being livestreamed.

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Shortly after the camera lens facing this fin is clouded in soot and debris, and even cracks from the extreme conditions.

1 hour 4 minutes 3 seconds: 606 km/h 13 km above sea level. To everyone’s surprise the flaps were still able to actuate, providing much needed stability and control authority during this critical part of the test.

1 hour 5 minutes 38 seconds: Starship executed its flip and burn manoeuvre with its fins still glowing from reentry.


A few seconds later, telemetry reads almost 0km/h and the camera view and roll animation indicate the vehicle had made a soft splash down!

What next?

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Catching the superheavy with giant chopstick arms of course! This is where stage-0, or rather the launch tower, that also acts also as a crane and landing pad for the superheavy booster.

Final Thoughts

For those paying attention, Starship has clearly recalibrated our expectation of rocket performance. The full-flow staged combustion cycle of liquid methane and oxygen not only is highly efficient and powerful, but can also be manufactured with ingredients in the atmosphere and soil of Earth and Mars; hopefully ushering in a new chapter of human exploration that may include permanent colonies beyond the biosphere of Earth.

We are long overdue for a new highwater mark that goes beyond boots on the moon. With this ship we may have a chance at establishing a settlement on Mars before the end of the century…

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