SpaceX Starship Might Not Fly To Orbit This Year Suggests NASA Paper

SpaceX Starship NASA lunar lander
A SpaceX render of the lunar version of its Starship spacecraft that will land astronauts on the Moon. Image: SpaceX

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Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) Starship next generation launch vehicle system might carry out its orbital test flight next year according to a research paper from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The paper, part of NASA's submission to the 73rd International Astronautical Congress set to start today in France, uses publicly available information to share details about NASA's Artemis program. Starship will play a central role in Artemis, which marks NASA's efforts to establish a permanent presence on the Moon. The spacecraft will be responsible for landing astronauts on the lunar surface, and the research paper shares other details about the rocket, such as its tanker variants that will form the first propellant deposit in space in the modern era.

NASA Document Leaves Starship's Future Unclear After Astronauts Are Transferred To Orion Spacecraft

The document provides rare insights into NASA's plans for the Artemis program, which will use the agency's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to conduct flights to the lunar surface. While the first Artemis mission is slated to launch soon, after NASA fixes fuel leak problems in its supporting architecture, the third mission will become the first to land astronauts on the lunar surface.

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Today's research paper, submitted by NASA officials to the IAC, shares details on the agency's plans for the Artemis 3 mission. It outlines that as part of Artemis 3, astronauts will take to the skies from Earth in the SLS, onboard the Orion spacecraft. However, before this happens, Starship will first launch its propellant depot to orbit, followed by tanker Starships to fill the depot. Once the depot is filled, the lunar Starship variant will lift off, fuel from the depot and then start its journey to the near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) after performing a trans lunar injection.

The three Starship variants as highlighted by NASA in a recent research paper. Image: NASA’s Initial Artemis Human Landing System/IAC-22.B3.1.9x71658

Once it reaches its destination and performs the necessary checkouts and tests, Starship will wait for the astronauts which will leave Earth onboard the Orion spacecraft on the SLS. However, what will happen to the Starship after astronauts return from the Moon and make their way back on the Orion is unclear, as after this the "HLS Starship will undock and complete its disposal," according to NASA.

NASA also explains SpaceX's progress with Starship in the document, and it shares that after having completed Starship's 10 kilometer flight and landing, SpaceX is now focusing on the rocket's first orbital flight test.

This, according to the space agency, will come next year, and to quote the research paper:

In May of 2021, SpaceX successfully completed a 10 km suborbital flight and landing of the Starship SN15 spacecraft Figure 3. SpaceX now turns its focus to conducting the first orbital flight of the integrated Starship system (Spacecraft + Booster) which will come in the next year.

The paper was posted on NASA's technical reports server in August, and since it addresses IAC's conference for this year, it can reasonably be inferred that the wording suggests that the first Starship orbital flight will take place in 2023. However, this might not be the case, since "in the next year" is still vague, and could imply the year after the 10 kilometer suborbital test flight - or 2022.

Right now, SpaceX is also working on systems for Starship maneuvers and sequences to make it compatible with Orion for docking, as the two will pair together near the Moon to transfer the astronauts from the latter to the former. Additionally, docking mechanisms of Starship with the propellant depot and thermal and meteoroid protection systems of the spacecraft have also been tested.

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Finally, NASA plans to award SpaceX with the HLS Option B contract this fall. The contract is an extension of the Artemis program and will see SpaceX develop a spacecraft capable of sustaining human presence on the Moon.

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