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SpaceX requests permission to fly new Starship rocket on 12-mile-high test flight

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The company wants the ability to fly as soon as March

A test version of Starship that SpaceX debuted in September has since been retired.
Photo by Pauline Acalin for The Verge

SpaceX is already planning the next big test flight of its future Starship rocket out of southern Texas. As early as mid-March, the company is hoping to fly a test version of the vehicle to a super high altitude and then land it upright on solid ground, proving the rocket can be reused and potentially touch down on other worlds.

The upcoming test is detailed in new paperwork SpaceX filed with the Federal Communications Commission, which provides licensing to aerospace companies that are hoping to fly their vehicles to space. Specifically, the FCC allocates which radio frequencies companies can use to communicate with their vehicles during flight.

SpaceX notes in its filing that it wants special authority to communicate with its Starship rocket while the vehicle flies to an altitude of 12.4 miles or 20 kilometers — nearly halfway to the edge of space. Starship would take off from SpaceX’s test facility at Boca Chica, Texas, and the company would attempt to land the vehicle near the launch site using the rocket’s Raptor engines. SpaceX also plans to send data of the vehicle’s trajectory to both the Air Force and NASA.

Such a test would be a significant step forward in the development of Starship, a massive new rocket that SpaceX is building to send people to deep space. Once complete, Starship is meant to launch into orbit on top of an equally massive rocket booster — called the Super Heavy — and then travel onward to distant destinations like the Moon and Mars. CEO Elon Musk has claimed that Starship will be able to lift more than 100 metric tons of payload or carry up to 100 passengers at a time.

That future is still a long way off, though. So far, SpaceX has done ignition tests of Starship’s Raptor engines, and last year, the company flew a scaled-down prototype of Starship to a height of 500 feet, successfully landing the vehicle upright afterward. In September, Musk boldly predicted that Starship would be flying to orbit within the first quarter of this year. However, that timeline likely won’t pan out. A test version of Starship blew its top during a pressure test in November, and the company decided to scrap flying that vehicle altogether. Since then, SpaceX has been working on new test vehicles out of Boca Chica, and the company is reportedly considering the idea of manufacturing Starship rockets out of Los Angeles again.

Still, flying any Starship vehicle above 12 miles will be a big step toward sending the rocket to orbit. SpaceX’s FCC filing requests permission to fly as early as March 16th, though it’s possible the test might not occur for a while. The filing requests quite a long window, giving the company until September 16th to perform this high-altitude flight.

While SpaceX preps for this flight, the company is also on the lookout for those who want to work on the Starship program. Musk announced on Twitter that SpaceX is hosting a career day this Thursday in order to staff up people to oversee Starship development at Boca Chica. Musk noted that people need to have “a super hardcore work ethic, talent for building things, common sense & trustworthiness.” People can be trained on all the other requirements for the jobs, Musk said.