SpaceX’s Starship Reached Orbit; Next Launch Aims for Return


SpaceX’s colossal Starship rocket is set to take flight for the fourth time on June 5, focusing on testing the reusable heat shield on the second stage as it attempts its first safe reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

CEO Elon Musk mentioned on his social media platform X that, “There are many tough issues to solve with this vehicle, but the biggest remaining problem is making a reusable orbital return heat shield, which has never been done before.”

Musk’s comments echo his earlier statements this month, emphasizing that the primary goal of the next Starship test is “getting through max reentry heating.”

This entails the second stage’s unique heat shield, made up of approximately 18,000 ceramic hexagonal tiles, being tested. These tiles are designed to protect the Starship from the intense heat encountered during atmospheric reentry. Musk pointed out that a major challenge is the system’s overall vulnerability: “we are not resilient to loss of a single tile in most places,” meaning a single damaged or defective tile could result in a disaster.

According to Musk, surviving reentry is just one piece of the puzzle. The company also needs to establish an “entirely new supply chain” for the high-performance heat shield tiles and manufacture them in large volumes.

It’s a significant challenge, but overcoming it would bring SpaceX closer to achieving full reusability in launch vehicles. The company has made significant strides with its Falcon 9 rocket — which has flown 56 times this year alone — but while Falcon 9’s booster is recovered, the second stage is expended. By reusing both stages, SpaceX aims to drastically reduce costs and increase payload capacity. (SpaceX’s Transporter ride-share missions cost $6,000 per kilogram.)

If successful, SpaceX will demonstrate the ability to return Starship to Earth through controlled reentry and a gentle splashdown in the Indian Ocean. Additionally, they plan to recover the Super Heavy booster via ocean splashdown, bringing them closer to fully operationalizing the largest and most powerful launch system ever built, which will eventually transport cargo and crew to Earth’s orbit and beyond.

This upcoming Starship launch marks the fourth in a series of orbital flight tests that began last April. Before proceeding, SpaceX must secure a commercial launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates commercial launch operations and investigates any launch anomalies, collaborating closely with SpaceX throughout the Starship test campaign.

Previous Starship launches have experienced failures: the first two ended in mid-air explosions, and the third saw both Super Heavy and Starship likely disintegrate before ocean impact. However, SpaceX’s iterative approach to development counts each test as a success for providing valuable data in real flight conditions. Notably, each mission has progressed farther than its predecessor, with the third flight achieving full-duration engine burns and Starship reaching orbit for the first time.

Ultimately, SpaceX plans to land both the Super Heavy booster and the Starship second stage at their southeast Texas launch site, enabling rapid refurbishment and return to launch readiness.

Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei covers the space and defense industries. Previously, she covered the public utilities and the power grid for California Energy Markets. You can also find her work at MIT’s Undark Magazine, The Verge, and Discover Magazine. She received an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Aria is based in Austin, Texas.

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