Musk plans to increase Starship launch rate and efficiency

WASHINGTON — SpaceX may soon attempt to land a Starship booster on a fifth flight of the vehicle, as Elon Musk outlined plans to increase both the flight rate and the launch's performance.

SpaceX posted on social media on April 6 a video of an undated but apparently recent presentation given by the company's founder and chief executive at its Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. A Starship vehicle was built and introduced there at the presentation.

A fourth Starship/Superheavy launch is planned “in about a month,” Musk said. That's consistent with SpaceX president Quinn Shadwell's comments at the Satellite 2024 conference on March 19, where he said the flight is planned for early May, pending a renewed Federal Aviation Administration launch license. If the company keeps to that schedule, the launch will take place within two months of the vehicle's third flight.

The goal of the fourth flight was to create a “controlled split” into the ocean by re-entering the starship's upper stage through a “high heating regime,” he said. On the third flight, the starship broke up during re-entry.

Musk said SpaceX wants to bring the super-heavy booster intact on its next flight, landing “basically on a virtual tower” in the Gulf of Mexico. This will allow the company to continue its efforts to land the booster back to the starbase.

“If the virtual tower landing works, we'll actually come back on Flight 5 and try to land on the tower,” he said. “It's a very successful schedule, but it's in the realm of possibility.”

Musk said he was confident SpaceX would be able to land a booster on the tower again this year. “Actually there's probably an 80 to 90% chance of catching a booster with Mechazilla weapons this year,” he said.

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It takes a long time for the starship to level up or recover the ship. Musk said he wanted to have at least two consecutive successful controlled splashdowns of the starship in the ocean before attempting to land on the starbase. “We don't want to dump garbage on Mexico or the United States,” he said. “My guess is we can use the starship again next year.”

SpaceX is working to speed up production of Starship vehicles to support higher flight rates. Before the March launch, company officials said the starbase had four pairs of ships and boosters for the upcoming missiles. Musk said at the presentation that the company will build “roughly six” vehicles this year.

“That production rate will increase a lot next year. “That's why we're building the giant factory” planned for Starbase, he said.

He noted that with increased production of Starship vehicles, the company is building a second launch tower at Starbase and its first launch tower at Cape Canaveral, Florida by the middle of next year. “What we should expect is that we do development launches here, we test anything new here, we build rockets,” he said at Starbase, “and then most of the operational launches will be from Cape.”

With increased production rate, payload capacity increases. Musk outlined improvements to the Raptor engine that would increase its thrust to between 230 and 280 metric ton-force and “ultimately” more than 330 metric ton-force.

Engine upgrades will support “Starship 2”, which has a slightly longer booster and ship. Musk said it could put more than 100 metric tons into orbit in a fully reusable configuration. The future “Starship 3”, which is 25 meters taller than Starship 2, will be able to put more than 200 metric tons into orbit in a fully reusable manner. He did not reveal when the Starship version will be available.

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Musk said the future Starship 3 would cost less than SpaceX's original rocket, the Falcon 1 small launch vehicle, which cost about $10 million, due to full reusability. He estimated that the Starship cost per launch would drop to $2 million to $3 million.

“These are unthinkable numbers,” he said. “Nobody thought it was possible. But we didn't break any physics to achieve this.

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