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Elon Musk’s giant Starship rocket rumbles into space once more

SpaceX's mega rocket Starship is prepared for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. The Starship is scheduled to launch Thursday.
Eric Gay/AP
SpaceX's mega rocket Starship is prepared for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Wednesday, June 5, 2024. The Starship is scheduled to launch Thursday.

The commercial company SpaceX is attempting its fourth launch of the largest rocket ever made Thursday morning.

A two-hour launch window will open at 7:00 a.m CT, according to SpaceX. A notice from the company warned residents near SpaceX's Boca Chica launch site in Texas that they might hear “a loud noise resulting from the rocket’s 33 Raptor engines firing upon ignition.”

SpaceX will broadcast the launch live on X.

Here’s what else you need to know about this latest test flight.

Starship is the largest rocket ever built

Standing nearly 400 feet tall when stacked on top of its “Super Heavy” booster, Starship is larger than even the Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon. The spaceship is also unique in that it uses stainless steel instead of light-weight metals like aluminum and titanium.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk wants Starship to one day carry astronauts to Mars. NASA has also given the company billions to develop it into a lunar lander, as part of its Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon. Finally, Starship is expected to play a pivotal role in the expansion of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network, by allowing the company to launch large numbers of internet-capable satellites all at once.

To achieve those lofty goals, Starship has to first prove it can work as intended. Its stainless steel body is supposed to make it rugged and rapidly reusable, and that is key to its many missions. The rocket's Raptor engines must also be able to fire and relight at different points in the flight.

SpaceX has made significant progress with its three previous tests

Starship’s first test launch in April of 2023 ended with the entire rocket exploding over the Gulf of Mexico. Its second test flight ended after the spacecraft triggered its self-destruct system before reaching orbit.

But by test flight three, Starliner was behaving more like an actual spacecraft. It successfully reached its expected orbit, and cruised part way around the world.

But there were still plenty of problems. A cargo door didn’t appear to open properly. And the Starship tumbled as it began to re-enter earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX believes clogged valves prevented the roll-control thrusters from working properly. The superheated gasses around the vehicle eventually caused it to disintegrate somewhere over the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile the super-heavy booster also had issues. Its engines failed to re-light properly as it reentered the atmosphere and fell back towards earth. It broke apart above the Gulf of Mexico.

With this launch, the company hopes to make it farther than ever before

SpaceX says that it has made several modifications to the Starship in preparation for its fourth launch. They’ve added extra roll-control thrusters to keep it from tumbling. They’ve also made modifications to help the super-heavy booster more reliably relight its engines.

Assuming those upgrades work, all eyes will be on Starship’s heat shield. Heat tiles have been seen falling off during earlier launches, and on X, Elon Musk admitted that even a single missing tile could cause the ship to burn up in the atmosphere.

screenshot by NPR / @elonmusk

If the heat shield can work, the spacecraft will make a controlled re-entry and attempt a soft landing in the Indian Ocean.

But the spacecraft is still very much experimental. On its website, SpaceX promises only “An exciting landing!”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.