SpaceX’s next Starship launch could feature NASA Artemis refueling test

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SpaceX is preparing for the third launch of its colossal Starship vehicle, a mission that could see a significant advancement in space travel technology with a possible refueling test. This development comes after the company’s second Starship mission, which, while marking progress, ended prematurely with the vehicle’s upper stage exploding minutes after liftoff.

Lakiesha Hawkins, Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA’s Moon to Mars Program Office, hinted at the upcoming mission’s complexity during a presentation to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. She mentioned a propellant transfer demonstration, a crucial step towards long-duration space missions, as part of SpaceX’s next Starship flight. However, NASA later clarified that no final decisions on timing have been made.

This refueling test, if it occurs, aligns with NASA’s broader goals of deep space exploration, particularly the Artemis program, which aims to establish a sustainable human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s. The Starship vehicle, developed by SpaceX, is an integral part of these plans, having been chosen as the first crewed lunar lander for Artemis.

Why in-space refueling?

The concept of in-space refueling is vital for missions beyond Earth’s orbit. Rockets and spacecraft consume most of their fuel escaping Earth’s gravity, necessitating refueling for further travel to destinations like the moon and Mars. The proposed refueling test involves transferring 11 tons of liquid oxygen between Starship tanks, a step toward the operational strategy of rendezvousing Starship vehicles with tanker variants in Earth orbit.

Starship’s journey so far has been challenging. Its inaugural flight witnessed an intentional detonation after a failed stage separation, and its second attempt, though achieving milestones like successful stage separation, ended with an explosion. These test flights, originating from SpaceX’s Starbase site in South Texas, aimed to send the vehicle’s upper stage towards a Pacific Ocean site near Hawaii.

The third Starship flight’s timing remains uncertain. SpaceX, led by founder and CEO Elon Musk, faces not just technical challenges but also regulatory ones. The company must secure a launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently investigating the November launch incident.

Despite these hurdles, the progress with Starship is crucial for SpaceX and NASA. Starship’s successful development could revolutionize space travel, enabling more ambitious missions, including the Artemis 3 mission to land astronauts near the moon’s south pole, slated for late 2025 or 2026. This mission depends heavily on the readiness and reliability of the Starship vehicle.

SpaceX’s endeavors with Starship represent a significant leap in space exploration capabilities. The upcoming third launch, with its potential refueling test, could be a critical step in advancing human exploration of the moon, Mars, and beyond. While SpaceX navigates technical and regulatory challenges, the space community eagerly awaits the next chapter in Starship’s development, hoping for a successful mission that paves the way for future interplanetary endeavors.

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