Significant: SpaceX sustained communications through reentry

Special to, June 12, 2024


By Richard Fisher

For its fourth flight — in less than a year — on June 6, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship epitomized what the SpaceX mission announcer called their “rapid iterative development” process, exploiting a crash or “failure” to produce data that improves the next mission.

Perhaps the most interesting new capability demonstrated by SpaceX was that it sustained a communications link with the Starship second stage as it was reentering the Earth’s atmosphere,

That the forward fin on the 4th Starship was burning during its June 6 reentry was less important than the fact it could be seen, that SpaceX had solved the historic reentry atmospheric plasma communications blackout. / SpaceX

Since the beginning of space travel, reentry into the atmosphere has produced a “plasma” envelope around spacecraft that blocks electronic communication signals, creating a communication “blackout” for several minutes.

SpaceX used some of its now over 6,000 Starlink broadband (internet) communications satellites to enable a powerful directed communications beam to penetrate from above Starship, where the plasma cloud presumably was thinnest, to create a sustained communications link.

This enabled the real-time and dramatic depiction of Starship’s front maneuvering fin burning during reentry, and though apparently it was still able to perform its mission, digital “footage” of this event is just the sort of “data” SpaceX requires to improve Starship.

Not only will this new communications method allow Starship and perhaps other craft to sustain communications during reentry, it may also help to guide military missiles though the plasma to then conduct varied missions in Near Space, or just below Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

This realm is targeted by China and the United States as a new area for military exploitation.

SpaceX mission announcers stressed repeatedly that the only “payload” for this 4th mission was “data,” and its 59-minute flight indeed yielded data on a number of accomplishments.

For the first time both the Super Heavy booster stage and the future manned or cargo Starship stage performed maneuvers to vertical ground-landing recovery positions before making a soft splashdown into the ocean, nevertheless a key step toward realizing the efficiency/payoff of recovery on land, essential for reusability for Starship.

In an advance for efficiency, the 5000 metric tons at launch Super Heavy first stage booster will be captured/recovered at the same tower that assembles the Super Heavy and Starship second stage, and then launches them.

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