Fourth time's the charm?

Matter of Time

SpaceX's Starship rocket — the most powerful in the world — may finally take to the skies for the fourth time as soon as next month, according to CEO Elon Musk.

On X, formerly Twitter, Musk shared a photo of several Starship systems being prepared for launch at SpaceX's Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. In a followup post, he estimated that Flight 4 would "probably" be in "three to five weeks."

"Objective is for the ship to get past max heating or at least further than last time," he added, alluding to the vehicle's failure to survive the scorching hot conditions of reentry during its previous test.

History of Distress

Starship is a reusable two-stage launch vehicle, comprising an enormous Super Heavy booster and the actual spacecraft itself, which is just called Starship. Fully stacked, the entire system is nearly 400 feet tall, making it the largest rocket ever built.

That staggering scale affords a greater payload capacity that, along with the rocket's reusability, is intended to drive down launch costs in the long run. But SpaceX's flagship vehicle has struggled to get off the ground — sometimes failing spectacularly — though some experts remain bullish on its progress so far.

Its first orbital launch attempt, in April 2023, resulted in the rocket exploding via an emergency self-destruct command after its stages failed to separate.

The latest test, which took place on March 14 of this year, saw Starship reach space, but ended with both parts of the vehicle crashing into the ocean; after successfully separating from the spacecraft, the booster's engines failed to fire back up in time to cushion its fall back to the Earth, and the second stage broke apart at an altitude of 40 miles, succumbing to the extreme temperatures of reentering the atmosphere.

Delayed Debut

Clearly, there's plenty of work to be done if Starship is going to spaceworthy. Notably, the rocket is still anticipated to play a key role in NASA's Artemis 3 mission, carrying the astronauts who will be the first to set foot on the lunar surface in over 50 years.

Though it already has launch approval at Starbase from the Federal Aviation Administration — which hasn't always been a sure thing, after the complications caused by Starship's disastrous first launch — SpaceX is also seeking a license to launch the enormous rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

That may be a sign of renewed optimism over Starship's future at the space company. Be that as it may, it's unclear if potential successes with Flight 4 will be enough to cement the rocket's bona fides. We'll be keeping our eyes peeled.

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