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NASA predicts first Starship orbital launch as soon as December

In Washington Subject to tests and regulatory approvals, NASA anticipates that SpaceX will be prepared to try a first orbital flight of its Starship spacecraft, a crucial component of the agency's Artemis lunar exploration ambitions, as early as early December.

Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for Artemis Campaign Development at NASA, said the organization's understanding of the status of testing of the Starship vehicle, including its Super Heavy booster, supported an orbital launch attempt late this year. He was speaking to the NASA Advisory Council's Human Exploration and Operations Committee on October 31.

Right now, the plan would result in a test flight in the first half of December, he said. The Super Heavy booster and Starship would take off from the Boca Chica, Texas, test site, following the same profile that the company had previously described in regulatory filings. The spacecraft would launch into orbit but almost instantly reenter the atmosphere, falling down close to Hawaii after fewer than one circle.

Several additional milestones, like as a static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster known as Booster 7, are need to meet that schedule. Up to seven Raptor engines have been tested at once by SpaceX, and the company has also performed a test known as a "spin prime" in which the turbopumps of the engines were turned on but no propellant was actually ignited.

Propellers ignited beneath the launcher during a spin prime test on July 11, causing damage that NASA euphemistically refers to as a "high-energy event." According to the agency, SpaceX has fixed the booster and taken corrective measures.

According to Kirasich, the detonation was caused by the test injecting "a relatively high amount of fuel" into an oxygen cloud. "That was a management and planning error. He described it as a "stop and learn" experience for SpaceX, saying that in its early stages, the company prioritises speed over rigorous systems engineering.

He said that this led to "extra rigour" in further testing because "they've since upped the level of systems engineering put into each one of these tests, as well as brought in some new leadership into the team down there."

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel of NASA took notice of that incident as well. Paul Hill, one of the panellists, brought it up during the group's open meeting on October 27. He noted that although "SpaceX is currently pursuing an aggressive Starship development test plan," the incident led to corrective measures that will tighten up risk management and systems engineering.

Before Starship is prepared for an orbital launch, according to Kirasich, there are still a number of requirements to be met. That entails a full wet dress rehearsal where the Starship and Super Heavy vehicles are filled with propellants and undergo a practice countdown, as well as the static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines in Super Heavy.

The Federal Aviation Administration must also grant SpaceX a launch authorization for the mission. Although the FAA approved Starship launches from Boca Chica after conducting an environmental evaluation in June, SpaceX was still obliged to carry out more than 75 mitigation measures as a result of that review. According to Kirasich, the licensing "is still ahead of us."

Because it sees the first Starship orbital launch as the first in a series of tests of a craft it intends to deploy to land astronauts on the moon on Artemis 3 through its Human Landing System contract with SpaceX, NASA is closely monitoring preparations for the launch.

Starting with the initial orbital launch, Kirasich added, "We follow four significant Starship flights. This is followed by a "longer duration" Starship trip, the specifics of which he did not share, and a mission to demonstrate propellant transfer in space, which is required to refuel the Starship lunar lander. The unmanned lunar landing test mission, slated for late 2024, is the fourth mission.

When the orbital launch was planned for this summer, he said that the four tests were evenly spaced out in the timetable. He stated that due to the delays in the initial orbital launch, "SpaceX has lost a lot of months," but he did not elaborate on how it would effect the schedule of the most recent experiments the organization is pursuing.

Edited by: Satyavrat Singh

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