SpaceX's huge Starship vehicle could go orbital for the first time next month, if all goes according to plan.
For months, SpaceX has been gearing up for the first-ever orbital test flight of Starship, its next-generation deep-space transportation system. The company may now be in the home stretch of such prep work, potentially allowing Starship to get off the ground in just six weeks or so.
"We have a real shot at late February. March launch attempt appears highly likely," SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter on Saturday (Jan. 7), in response to speculation that the flight could come as early as Jan. 31.
Related: SpaceX's Starship Super Heavy test-fires record 14 engines (video)
We have a real shot at late February. March launch attempt appears highly likely.January 8, 2023
SpaceX is developing Starship to carry people and cargo to the moon and Mars, among other jobs. The giant vehicle consists of two elements, both of which are designed to be fully reusable: a huge first-stage booster called Super Heavy and a 165-foot-tall (50 meters) upper-stage spacecraft known as Starship.
The upcoming orbital test flight will apparently involve a Super Heavy prototype known as Booster 7 and the Ship 24 Starship variant. SpaceX has been subjecting both prototypes to a variety of tests at its Starbase facility in South Texas.
For example, both Booster 7 and Ship 24 have performed "static fire" trials, igniting their Raptor engines while remaining anchored to the ground. Ship 24 has lit up all six of its Raptors simultaneously, while Booster 7 has engaged up to 14 of its 33 engines at once.
As that latter tally shows, SpaceX still has some work to do in the leadup to the orbital launch. Musk has said the company will conduct a full 33-engine static fire with Booster 7 before sending it up.
The upcoming test flight will lift off from Starbase. Ship 24 will travel around Earth once and then splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Booster 7 will apparently make a splashdown of its own, in the Gulf of Mexico off the Texas coast.
The orbital trial will be the first Starship test flight since May 5, 2021. On that day, a three-engine Starship prototype called SN15 soared about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) into the Texas skies, then came back down for a safe landing at Starbase.
SN15 took off alone, as did all previous Starship prototypes that launched on test flights. The flight of Booster 7 and Ship 24 will mark the first time a Super Heavy vehicle has taken to the skies.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.