HomeSpaceSpaceX's Starship IFT-3: HLS Paving the Way for Lunar Exploration

SpaceX’s Starship IFT-3: HLS Paving the Way for Lunar Exploration

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SpaceX’s Starship represents an unpresented leap in space transportation technology. Its development has been characterized by rapid iteration and ambitious testing schedules. The IFT-3 of Ship 28 and Booster 10, scheduled for the first quarter of 2024, aims to validate critical technologies essential for future lunar and interplanetary missions. 

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SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has consistently pushed the boundaries of space technology. Starship is envisioned as a fully reusable spacecraft capable of carrying humans and cargo to Mars. The IFT-3 follows the second flight test (IFT-2) on November 18, 2023, which demonstrated successful hot staging but experienced telemetry loss after eight minutes of flight. It also integrated many advancements learned from the first IFT-1 on April 20, 2023. The data collected and lessons learned from each flight test are invaluable engineering tools needed to achieve Elon Musk’s ambitious objectives. 

Technological Advancements For IFT-3 

First ever attempted hot-stagging performed by IFT-2 on 11-18-23. Image by Richard P. Gallagher

Building on IFT-2, SpaceX will be incorporating major updates from Flight 2, including electronic Thrust Vector Control (TVC), hot staging, and an upgraded Flight Termination System (FTS). 

  • Electronic Thrust Vector Control (TVC): An advanced system for precise control of the rocket’s path. 
  • Upgraded Flight Termination System (FTS): Enhanced safety measures for mission termination if necessary. 
  • Propellant Transfer Demonstration: A key feature for the HLS, involving transfer from a header tank to a main tank in microgravity. 
  • Launch Pad Improvements Addition of a water-cooled steel plate for thermal protection and sound dampening. Improvements to the OLM, Orbital Launch Module, and “Mechazzilla,” the chopstick arms used to stack Starship on the booster.  

A critical new element planned for IFT-3 is the propellant transfer. This test will likely use two different tanks within Starship, possibly a header tank to a main tank. This test is essential for the Human Landing System (HLS). The test will provide critical data for learning how to transfer propellants between vehicles, a maneuver not yet attempted in space. It involves transferring approximately 10 tons of LOX, liquid oxygen, from one tank to another. This test is part of SpaceX’s Tipping Point contract with NASA and is critical for the future lunar lander’s ability to ferry astronauts to the Moon under the Artemis program. 

Flight Path and Objectives 

  • IFT-3 will aim for suborbital velocity, followed by a controlled crash landing in the ocean north of Hawaii. 
  • Testing the propellant transfer in space 

Starship and Super Heavy Specifications

Starship 25 is placed on Booster 9. Visible is the hot-stage ring on the booster and Starship’s 6 Raptor engines. Image by Richard P. Gallagher
  • Starship (Orbital Ship): Is currently equipped with three sea-level and three vacuum-optimized Raptor-2 engines. Each sea-level Raptor engine produces approximately 185 tons (or about 410,000 pounds) of thrust, while the vacuum-optimized versions are designed for higher performance in the vacuum of space. It is 160 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter. It can carry 100 metric tons to orbit.  
  • Super Heavy Booster: Powered by 33 Raptor-2 engines, featuring a unique arrangement for efficient fueling and engine start-up. Each of these engines also produces about 185 tons of thrust. Total thrust of the Super Heavy booster is approximately 6,105 tons (about 13,455,000 pounds). It is 230 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter. 

Achievement Requires Practice 

SpaceX’s IFT-3 marks a pivotal moment in the journey towards advanced space travel. The test’s success could significantly advance human capability for lunar and Mars missions, demonstrating critical technologies like propellant transfer. The iterative approach taken by SpaceX in developing Starship showcases the dynamic nature of modern space exploration and the potential for rapid advancements in space technology. 

“Mechazzilla’s” chopstick arms stack Starship on top of the super heavy booster. Video by Richard P. Gallagher

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