SpaceX Tests its Starship-Catching Launch Tower

If you thought landing a used rocket booster on a barge or a landing pad was crazy idea, take a look at how SpaceX plans to land the big Starship rocket.

The same tower that will be used to launch the rocket will also attempt “catching” the spent booster when it comes back to Earth.

Elon Musk shared a video on Twitter today, revealing the large structure, which is under construction at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The tower, nicknamed “Mechazilla” features mechanical arms, dubbed “chopsticks,” that will be used to catch and hold the rocket’s booster. The arms will then set down the booster after it delivers the second-stage into orbit.

The testing process began last week. According to the site Teslarati, on January 4th, SpaceX lifted, opened, and swung the tower’s building-sized arms for the first time. Four days later, SpaceX performed a variation on the first round of tests, again slowly lifting the assembly up the side of the launch tower and opening and closing the arms. The second test also tested the swinging motion of the arms.

SpaceX also performed some basic tests on a fueling arm located higher up on the tower, swinging it slowly towards where Starship would be positioned for launch.

Below is an animation created by @HoppAR on Twitter of how the arms will work:

We’ve been keeping an eye on the construction of the Mechazilla tower, which stands about 122 meters (400 feet) tall. When will it be used for its first official launch?

Last November, Musk hinted at a launch as early as this month (January 2022), but now it seems sometime during March is more likely. During an online meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy in November, Musk said that Starship could go through “a dozen launches, maybe more,” in 2022 and be ready to send valuable payloads to the Moon, Mars and even the Solar System’s outer planets by 2023.

Some sources say, however, that it unlikely the arms will be used in the first attempt at an orbital Starship flight, as there is not time to test all of its mechanisms sufficiently.

Starships ready for test flights. Credit: SpaceX

The tower will also prepare missions by stacking first stage boosters with Starships and refueling these elements for the next launch. This means Mechazilla is a crucial piece of the Orbital Launch Site (OLS) architecture that Elon Musk has planned for Boca Chica. Once the Starship completes its Orbital Flight Test, Starbase could become a spaceflight hub where launches and retrievals are conducted regularly.

Back in August, Musk said on Twitter, “We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load… Saves mass & cost of legs & enables immediate repositioning of booster on to launch mount—ready to refly in under an hour.”

In 2021, SpaceX broke its own record by launching more than 30 rockets into orbit in a single calendar year. They also broke their own record for back-to-back launches after two separate missions using reusable Falcon 9 rockets took place within 15 hours of each other.

NASASpaceflight has a live feed showing the goings-on at Starbase, so you can watch any tests as they happen:

Further Reading:

SpaceX Starship page