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SpaceX outlines first orbital Starship test flight

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has disclosed details for the first orbital test flight of its next-generation Starship launch system, but the company is still far short of the regulatory approvals needed for the mission.

SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission May 13 for special temporary authority for communications required to support a Starship test launch from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. The license would cover communications for what the company called an “experimental orbital demo and recovery test of the Starship test vehicle” launching from Boca Chica.

In an attachment to the application, SpaceX provided the first details about what it calls “Starship Orbital – First Flight.” The mission would involve a launch of the overall Starship vehicle, including the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage, from Boca Chica.

“SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally,” the company said in the application. “This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design or [concept of operations] after the first flight and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.”

As outlined in the application, the Super Heavy booster will shut down 169 seconds after liftoff, separating from the Starship upper stage two seconds later. Super Heavy will fly back not to Boca Chica, but instead to a location 32 kilometers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, touching down 495 seconds after liftoff. The application didn’t state if the booster would land on a platform, such as an oil rig SpaceX is converting for such uses, or splash down into the ocean.

Starship, which ignites its engines five seconds after stage separation, will shut down its engines 521 seconds after liftoff, having achieved orbit. The vehicle, though, will complete less than one full orbit before entering and landing in the Pacific Ocean 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai approximately 90 minutes after liftoff.

The application notes that SpaceX will perform a “powered, targeted landing” but not on any kind of ship. Instead, it will make “a soft ocean landing.” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a tweet that the company is planning an ocean landing to avoid hazards should the vehicle not survive reentry. “We need to make sure ship won’t break up on reentry, hence deorbit over Pacific,” he wrote.

The application did not specify when the company expects to perform this launch, beyond a six-month “requested period of operation” that starts June 20.

SpaceX can’t carry out the launch, though, until it receives a license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That license will depend on the status of an ongoing environmental assessment of Starship/Super Heavy launch operations from Boca Chica, which fall outside the scope of the original environmental impact statement prepared when SpaceX planned to use the site for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles.

That assessment is ongoing, and the FAA has not given schedule for completing it. The FAA states on its website that the public will be given an opportunity comment on the draft assessment, which will recommend whether the FAA needs to then prepare a more detailed environmental impact statement. The FAA could otherwise determine there would be no significant impact to the environment from Starship/Super Heavy launches, or that those impacts can be mitigated with appropriate measures, the agency explained in a set of frequently asked questions about the ongoing environmental review.

“SpaceX must meet all licensing requirements before Starship/Super Heavy can launch,” an FAA spokesman noted May 14.

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