A daring scheme to catch a returning Starship booster rocket is taking shape at SpaceX’s launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
The new drone footage, as shared in an Elon Musk tweet, shows the impressive structure rising up from the south Texas facility known as as Starbase. The video appears almost a year to the day after the SpaceX CEO announced that the upcoming Super Heavy booster will be caught by a launch tower, instead of making a vertical landing on retractable legs.
This bird’s eye view of the tower is forcing me to imagine the sight of a 230-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) booster rocket coming in for a landing. It’s guaranteed to be a visual spectacle, but it’s all part of Musk’s plan to deploy a viable reusable heavy launch system.
In a Federal Aviation Administration filing submitted on September 10, 2021, SpaceX said the 469-foot-tall (143-meter tall) launch tower, with its 10-foot-tall (3-meter-tall) lightning rod, is meant to “lift its new rocket and booster on the launch mount, and to catch the super-heavy booster upon return from launch.” The launch and catch tower “will be constructed out of structural steel trusses to allow the mechanical arms to lift vehicles,” SpaceX added. The mechanical arms, of which there are two, will catch the descending rocket, though it’s not immediately clear how this will be accomplished.
Once complete, the Starship system will consist of a Starship upper stage and a Super Heavy booster. When stacked together, the two reusable stages will create a gigantic rocket measuring 394 feet (120 meters) in height, making it the tallest rocket ever built. Starship has more than 100 metric tons of lift capacity and is designed to transport crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Multiple tests of the upper stage have already been completed, including a test in May 2021 during which a Starship prototype performed a successful landing. The lower stage has yet to be launched, but as Musk pointed out in a tweet from last year, SpaceX is “going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load.” As an added bonus, this will enable the “immediate repositioning” of the booster onto the launch mount, such that Starship will be “ready to refly in under an hour,” Musk added.
The newly built launch and catch tower is currently going through preliminary tests, as Teslerati reports. Last week, SpaceX lifted, opened, and swung the tower’s gigantic arms, and in tests done earlier this week, engineers lifted the assembly up the tower and closed its arms.
Musk expects the inaugural launch of a fully stacked Starship, consisting of Heavy Booster 4 and Starship prototype SN20, to happen later this month or in February. The Starship system isn’t expected to become fully operational until 2023 at the earliest. Some time pressure is involved, as SpaceX has been contracted by NASA to provide a lunar landing craft in the form of a Starship rocket for the upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon, with a human landing expected no earlier than 2025.