SpaceX has been given the all-clear to launch its Starship rocket system for the first time as soon as this week.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued Elon Musk‘s company with a licence to put its most powerful rocket system through its paces, saying it met all safety and environmental requirements.
It means Starship could blast off for its debut orbital test from Brownsville, Texas, on Monday.
Sitting atop a huge Super Heavy booster for a combined height of 120m, Starship is the world’s biggest and most powerful rocket system. It was first unveiled in 2019.
Once up and running, it will be used for taking satellites into orbit – and SpaceX founder Musk has said it will eventually carry astronauts to the moon and even Mars.
The billionaire said any launch this week only has a 50% chance of success, but thinks there’s an 80% chance of reaching orbit by the end of the year.
The Super Heavy booster, which has 33 rocket engines, had a stationary launch test back in February, and generated enough power to reach orbit.
How will the first orbital test work?
Starship would be carried skyward by a Super Heavy prototype called Booster 7 from a launch pad in Brownsville.
The rocket system’s second stage – the craft that would carry a crew of astronauts in the future – would then be deployed and complete a full orbit of the Earth, before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing into the Pacific.
Meanwhile, the first stage would be discarded in the Gulf of Mexico.
No landings will be attempted in the debut test flight, and no satellites or people will be on board.
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Will it definitely launch this week?
There are obviously no guarantees with space launches, given the potential for technical hiccups or weather delays, but SpaceX is targeting Monday.
If not, a notice posted by the FAA suggests Tuesday and Wednesday as backup dates.
Once a time is set in stone, SpaceX’s website says the launch window will last two and a half hours.
The build-up and launch itself will be live-streamed on the company’s website.
If, as Musk predicts, this week’s test doesn’t go to plan, there will be more later this year.
The licence issued by the US flight regulator lasts five years, by which time NASA hopes to have used Starship to transport astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years via its Artemis programme.
The privately-funded dearMoon mission is also aiming to take a crew to the moon and back aboard Starship.