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SpaceX plans for 1st orbital Starship flight hint at Texas-to-Hawaii trip

SpaceX's Starship SN15 rocket prototype launches on a 10-kilometer test flight from SpaceX's Starbase test site near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on May 5, 2021.
SpaceX's Starship SN15 rocket prototype launches on a 10-kilometer test flight from SpaceX's Starbase test site near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on May 5, 2021. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is getting Starship ready for its first orbital flight.

The company plans to launch a prototype Starship vehicle from the usual location near Boca Chica, Texas, and do a round-the-world uncrewed flight that will splash down off the coast of Hawaii, according to a document filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that was first reported by The Verge.

A flight date has not yet been announced, although SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said he hopes to get Starship into orbit by the end of 2021.

Related: SpaceX's Starship and Super Heavy rocket in pictures

Starship consists of two elements, both of which are designed to be fully reusable: a spacecraft called Starship and a giant first-stage booster known as Super Heavy. 

During the upcoming orbital mission, SpaceX plans to return the first stage — likely a Super Heavy on its debut flight, according to media reports — to Earth about 6 minutes after liftoff. But Super Heavy won't come down at the launch site; the target landing zone is a patch of the Gulf of Mexico about 20 miles (32 kilometers) off the South Texas coast, according to the document

"The orbital Starship will continue on flying between the Florida straits," the document added. "It will achieve orbit until performing a powered, targeted landing approximately 100 km (62 miles) off the northwest coast of Kauai in a soft ocean landing."

SpaceX wants to "collect as much data as possible during flight" to learn more about the entry dynamics of Starship, because the flight profile "is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally," the document states. Such data is expected to inform future vehicle designs and better modeling.

The orbital plans were filed days after SpaceX finally stuck the landing during a high-altitude Starship test flight — a mission performed by the SN15 vehicle, which lifted off from South Texas on May 5. Four of SN15's predecessors had attempted this flight, but all of them ended up in pieces. One of those vehicles, SN10, appeared to touch down safely in March, but a fire quickly broke out at is base and the craft exploded

SpaceX has been rapidly evolving the Starship design using the "lessons learned" from each flight. For SN15, for example, SpaceX representatives listed "vehicle improvements across structures, avionics and software, and the engines … [to] allow more speed and efficiency throughout production and flight: specifically, a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt and a new Raptor engine design and configuration."

SpaceX plans to eventually use Starship to ferry people and cargo to the moon, Mars and other places far from Earth. Musk has said that, if testing proceeds as planned, Starship and Super Heavy could be fully operational sometime in 2023, although he acknowledged he tends to have ambitious timelines.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.