SpaceX is counting down to the first test flight of its Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, designed to send astronauts to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
The SpaceX Starship is seen on its launchpad at Boca Chica, Texas, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico a day before its test flight
Elon Musk’s SpaceX made final preparations to launch its powerful new Starship rocket system into space for the first time on a brief but highly anticipated, uncrewed test flight from the Texas coast.
Here is what to know about the launch and tech billionaire’s project.
The rocket is the biggest and mightiest ever built, and its maker has lofty goals of ferrying people to the Moon and Mars. It is 120 metres (394 feet) high and stands taller than the Statue of Liberty.
The stainless steel Starship has 33 main engines and 7.6 million kilogrammes (16.7 million pounds) of thrust.
Given its muscle, Starship could lift as much as 250 tonnes and accommodate 100 people on a trip to Mars.
SpaceX foresees eventually putting a Starship into orbit and then refuelling it with another Starship so it can continue on a journey to Mars or beyond.
Musk said the goal is to make Starship reusable and bring down the price of space travel to a few million dollars per flight.
“In the long run – long-run meaning, I don’t know, two or three years – we should achieve full and rapid reusability,” he said, according to a report by the Agence France-Presse news agency on Monday.
The eventual objective is to establish bases on the Moon and Mars and put humans on the “path to being a multiplanet civilization,” Musk said.
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At what time is the launch and where can you watch it?
The two-stage rocket is due for blastoff from the SpaceX facility at Boca Chica, Texas, during a two-hour launch window that opens at 7am (12:00 GMT).
According to SpaceX, a live webcast “will begin 45 minutes before liftoff” (11:15 GMT), which can be accessed at this link.
What is expected on Monday?
If all goes as planned on Monday, all 33 Raptor engines will ignite simultaneously to lift the Starship into a flight that nearly completes a full orbit of the Earth before it re-enters the atmosphere and free falls into the Pacific at supersonic speed about 100km (60 miles) off the northern Hawaiian Islands.
If Starship reaches the three-minute mark of flight after launch, the booster will be commanded to separate and is expected to execute the beginnings of a controlled return flight into the Gulf of Mexico.
Starship’s blazing re-entry over the Pacific will test its ability to aerodynamically steer itself using large flaps and for its heat shields to withstand the intense friction generated as it plummets through the atmosphere.
“The ship will be coming in like a meteor,” Musk said. “This is the first step in a long journey that will require many flights.”
SpaceX Starship’s full stack is seen on its launchpad near Brownsville in the US state of Texas [File: Reuters]
Will the Starship launch succeed?
Musk is not hopeful about the chances of success on Monday.
“Success is not what should be expected,” Musk told a private Twitter audience on Sunday night, saying the best-case scenario would provide crucial data about how the vehicle ascends to space and how it will fly back to Earth.
“Probably, tomorrow will not be successful, he said. “It’s just a very fundamentally difficult thing.”
Musk said it’s more likely for the flight to be postponed than to launch on Monday. SpaceX has backup launch windows on Tuesday and Wednesday for roughly the same times.
Who else is investing in Starship?
California-based SpaceX has a $3bn contract with NASA to land astronauts on the Moon as early as 2025.
It would be the first Moon landing by astronauts in more than 50 years.
The moonwalkers are to leave Earth on NASA’s Orion capsule and a Space Launch System rocket, transfer to Starship in lunar orbit for the descent to the surface and then return to Orion.
But Starship isn’t just for NASA. The first flight by a private crew is planned to orbit Earth. Two private flights to the Moon are also in the works – no landings, just fly-arounds.