After Thursday’s flight, Starship is already the most revolutionary rocket ever built


Starship meets plasma.
Enlarge / Starship meets plasma.


One of the best things about spaceflight is its power to dazzle us.

I will never forget seeing the first images of Pluto and its moon Charon for the first time, with their vibrant colors and exotic geology. A world with super-sized ice volcanoes? Oh my. Similarly affecting were up-close views of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, revealed by Europe’s Philae lander. And it is difficult to forget the harrowing footage of NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars.

But no space agency or company has dazzled us more in the last 10 years than SpaceX. The company produces moments of wonder and originality that are both breathtaking and full of promise. What SpaceX does best is provide us a glimpse into a tantalizingly close future.

And that happened again on Thursday with the third Starship launch.

Was that sci-fi?

The moment of true amazement came about 45 minutes into the flight, as Starship descended an altitude of 100 km and began entering a thicker atmosphere. For a couple of minutes, we were treated to unprecedented views of atmospheric heating acting on a spacecraft. It’s one thing to know about the perils of plasma and compression as a spacecraft falls back to Earth at 27,000 km/hour into thickening air. It’s another thing to see it.

Let’s step back for just a moment to realize how these unprecedented views were possible.

Starlink terminals on the ship were sending signals to satellites in low-Earth orbit, which then sent them back to Earth. This is not a new idea. For the last 40 years, NASA has used a small constellation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites to communicate with spacecraft, beginning with the Space Shuttle. Starship was able to communicate with these satellites upon its reentry, but it was only at a low data rate, and it dropped out as the plasma thickened. The Starlink connection remained longer and is what enabled the stunning video of reentry.

To accomplish this, SpaceX had to build a reusable rocket, the Falcon 9, which is capable of reflying many times. This enabled the company to launch more than 5,500 Starlink satellites and create a global network. (SpaceX operates, by a factor of 10, more satellites than any other company or country in the world). Because of this, it was able to produce unprecedented data and video of Starship’s turbulent reentry.

The journey to reach this capability has produced many of those dazzling moments. There was that first land-based landing of the Falcon 9 rocket days before Christmas in 2015. It was followed a few months later by the first landing of a booster on a drone ship. (For me, this CRS-8 booster landing on a boat felt like the first actual sci-fi thing I’d ever seen in my life). There was Starman in orbit and the dual booster landing with the first Falcon Heavy launch. And so on.

These SpaceX moments feel like a portal opening into the future. That is their power. The first booster landings hinted at the possibility of reusing first stages. The dual booster landing suggested it could be done at scale. Today, we’re seeing this promised future as some Falcon rockets fly 20 times, and SpaceX is likely to approach a truly unprecedented 150 launches this year. This high launch cadence enabled Starlink, through which SpaceX has delivered high-speed broadband around the world and in space.

What Thursday’s revelatory reentry footage promises is a world in which launch is cheap and abundant. No longer will we need to worry so much about mass or volume, which have been tyrannical overlords to mission planners since the inception of spaceflight nearly seven decades ago.


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