Musk Confirms how “Mechazilla” Will Catch and Assemble Starship and Super Heavy for Rapid Reuse

In January of 2021, Elon Musk announced SpaceX’s latest plan to increase the number of flights they can mount by drastically reducing turnaround time. The key to this was a new launch tower that would “catch” first stage boosters after they return to Earth. This would forego the need to install landing legs on future Super Heavy boosters and potentially future Starship returning to Earth.

Musk shared this idea in response to a Tweet made by an animator who goes by the Twitter handle Erc X, who asked if his latest render (of a Starship landing next to its launch tower) was accurate. As usual, Musk responded via Twitter, saying:

“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.”

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Starship is Stacked on the Super Heavy Booster. The Tallest Rocket Ever Built

Once again, things are gearing up at SpaceX’s South Texas Launch Facility, located just outside the village of Boca Chica, Texas. In recent weeks, the aerospace community has been abuzz about the rollout and Static Fire test of the Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) prototype. This was the first time a booster was tested, which will be responsible for launching the Starship to space in the near future. Since then, things have only ramped up some more.

First, there was the announcement on Aug. 2nd that the fourth Super Heavy prototype (the BN4) received a full complement of 29 Raptor engines and grid fins. This was followed on Aug. 3rd with news that BN4 was being moved to the launch pad and that the SN20 Starship prototype received a full six Raptor engines. On Aug. 6th, the denouement came with the stacking of both prototypes together, which resulted in the tallest rocket in the history of spaceflight!

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According to Elon, Starship Could Chomp up Space Junk

At their South Texas Launch Facility, just outside of the village of Boca Chica, SpaceX is gearing up to test the Super Heavy, the booster element of their Starship launch system. This massive reusable first stage rocket will be responsible for sending the Starship orbital vehicle to space, where it will deliver satellites to orbit, payloads and people to the Moon, and (if all goes as planned) the first human settlers to Mars.

According to a recent statement issued by SpaceX founder Musk Musk, the Starship could also be used to “chomp up debris” in Earth orbit. As usual, the statement was issued via Twitter, where Musk was once again addressing questions posted by followers and fans. The topic arose after Musk shared the latest updates about Starlink, one of a handful of satellite constellations that are bringing broadband internet services to every corner of the planet.

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After Just 6 Weeks of Construction, Super Heavy is Built and Ready to Move

As usual, the SpaceX South Texas Launch Facility, located near the village of Boca Chica, is the focal point of a lot of attention. Almost two months ago, crews at the facility began working on the first true Super Heavy prototype, the launch stage of SpaceX’s Starship. After six weeks of assembly, SpaceX rolled the Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) out of the “High Bay” (where it was assembled) and installed it onto the launch pad.

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Jeff Bezos Will be Flying to Space Aboard New Shepard Next Month

In recent years, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has watched his commercial space company, Blue Origin, lose ground to the competition. While SpaceX has progressed by leaps and bounds towards realizing regular launches to the Moon and Mars (with the fully-reusable Starship), Blue Origin has been stuck in development hell with its launch vehicles. For this reason, Bezos announced that he would be stepping down as CEO of Amazon to focus on his fledgling space company.

So far, this decision has borne fruit, with the successful suborbital flight test of the New Shepard rocket that took place this past April. Stepping things up a notch, Bezos recently announced that when the first crewed flight of the New Shepard happens later this summer, he will be among the passengers. Scheduled to take place on July 20th, this mission will see Bezos and his younger brother Mark become the first billionaire space tycoon to launch to space.

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SpaceX’s SN15 Starship Prototype Nails It!

On the afternoon of May 5th, 2021, at 05:24 PM local time, SpaceX made its fifth attempt at a high-altitude test flight and soft landing with a Starship prototype. Given the outcomes of the previous test, this event had many people on the edge of their seats. In all four attempts, the prototypes managed to reach their maximum altitude and pull off the bellyflop maneuver, but then exploded during landing (or shortly thereafter).

Would the fifteenth iteration of the Starship prototype (SN15) succeed where the others had failed? As of 05:30 P.M. local time (06:30 P.M. EDT; 03:30 P.M. PDT), the answer to that question is, “WITH GUSTO!” On their fifth attempt, the SN15 not only managed to reach its target altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi) and pull off the belly-flop and controlled descent, it also stuck the landing and suffered no mishaps afterward.

In other words, COMPLETE SUCCESS!

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Protests From Dynetics and Blue Origin put NASA’s Lunar Lander Award to SpaceX on Hold

Project Artemis, NASA’s long-awaited plan for sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, has taken many steps forward. Aside from the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and the elements that will make up the Lunar Gateway, NASA recently awarded SpaceX with the contract to build the Human Landing System (HLS) that will transport astronauts to the lunar surface.

However, this decision didn’t sit well with the other two companies NASA was also considering. These included Blue Origin, the commercial space company founded by Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos, and Alabama-based aerospace company Dynetics. After protests were filed by both companies, NASA decided to issue a stop-work order on the HLS award to SpaceX while it reviews the complaints.

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What if Starship Didn’t Do a Landing Burn at All?

Thanks to Musk’s preference for sharing his ideas directly with the public, SpaceX is inundated with all kinds of proposals from citizen scientists and space-exploration enthusiasts – some of which are practical and some outlandish. This latest proposal definitely straddles these two categories! In an animation shared via Twitter, 3D digital artist Nick Henning offered an alternative vision for a SpaceX tower that could “catch” the Super Heavy.

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Latest Starship Prototype SN11 Explodes in mid-air, Raining Debris on the Launch Site

Space exploration sure is hard, huh? Luckily, it’s an iterative process, where engineers test and test and test again to work out all the bugs in advance. At least, that’s what we remind ourselves when the prototype goes “kaboom!” Earlier today, the SN11 joins its predecessors by being the fourth Starship prototype to conduct a successful flight test and then explode while attempting to make a landing (or shortly thereafter).

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Fantastic Analysis of SN-10 Landing and Explosion by Scott Manley

Update: Yesterday (March 9th), Elon Musk shared the reason for the explosion via Twitter. According to Musk, the problem originated with the one Raptor engine used to slow the SN10 down before landing.

“SN10 engine was low on thrust due (probably) to partial helium ingestion from fuel header tank,” he tweeted. “Impact of 10m/s crushed legs & part of skirt. Multiple fixes in work for SN11.

On March 3rd, 2021, SpaceX conducted a third high-altitude flight test with one of their Starship prototypes (SN10). This time around, the prototype managed to achieve an apogee of 10 km (6.2 mi), a controlled descent relying on nothing but its aerodynamic surfaces (the “belly-flop”), and even managed to land successfully. However, a few minutes after it stuck the landing, the SN10 exploded on the landing pad.

Whereas the SN8 and SN9 explosions were attributed to problems that took place during engine reignition, the cause of the SN10 explosion was not as clear. Thankfully, astrophysicist and Youtube personality Scott Manley (Twitter handle @DJSnM) has offered his take on what might have caused it. Using SpaceX’s footage of the SN10 flight test, he suggests that a slightly-harder-than-intended landing and a fuel tank rupture were responsible.

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