NASA and SpaceX Successfully Test Starship’s Lunar Lander Docking System

SpaceX Starship Docking System

SpaceX and NASA recently performed full-scale qualification testing of the docking system that will connect SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System (HLS) with Orion and later Gateway in lunar orbit during future crewed Artemis missions. Based on the flight-proven Dragon 2 active docking system, the Starship HLS docking system will be able to act as an active or passive system during docking. Credit: SpaceX

NASA and SpaceX have successfully tested the docking system for the Artemis III mission, which will enable astronauts to transfer between the Orion spacecraft and the Starship HLS for lunar landings.

This system, based on the Dragon 2 docking technology, will facilitate future crew transfers to the lunar surface and from lunar orbit to the Gateway space station. Over 200 docking scenarios were tested, proving the system’s capability for a smooth transfer.

NASA’s Artemis campaign is setting the stage for sustained scientific exploration at the Moon. To facilitate lunar landings, astronauts will need to transfer between various spacecraft. Recently, NASA and SpaceX conducted qualification tests on a docking system designed to enable these crucial transitions.

For the Artemis III mission, astronauts will ride the Orion spacecraft from Earth to lunar orbit, and then once the two spacecraft are docked, move to the lander, the Starship Human Landing System (HLS) that will bring them to the surface. After surface activities are complete, Starship will return the astronauts to Orion waiting in lunar orbit. During later missions, astronauts will transfer from Orion to Starship via the Gateway lunar space station. Based on SpaceX’s flight-proven Dragon 2 docking system used on missions to the International Space Station, the Starship docking system can be configured to connect the lander to Orion or Gateway.

SpaceX Starship Human Lander

Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program. Credit: SpaceX

The docking system tests for Starship HLS were conducted at NASA’s Johnson Space Center over 10 days using a system that simulates contact dynamics between two spacecraft in orbit. The testing included more than 200 docking scenarios, with various approach angles and speeds. These real-world results using full-scale hardware will validate computer models of the Moon lander’s docking system.

This dynamic testing demonstrated that the Starship system could perform a “soft capture” while in the active docking role. When two spacecraft dock, one vehicle assumes an active “chaser” role while the other is in a passive “target” role. To perform a soft capture, the soft capture system (SCS) of the active docking system is extended while the passive system on the other spacecraft remains retracted. Latches and other mechanisms on the active docking system SCS attach to the passive system, allowing the two spacecraft to dock.

Since being selected as the lander to return humans to the surface of the Moon for the first time since Apollo, SpaceX has completed more than 30 HLS specific milestones by defining and testing hardware needed for power generation, communications, guidance and navigation, propulsion, life support, and space environments protection.

Under NASA’s Artemis campaign, the agency will land the first woman, first person of color, and its first international partner astronaut on the lunar surface, and prepare for human expeditions to Mars for the benefit of all. Commercial human landing systems are critical to deep space exploration, along with the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, advanced spacesuits and rovers, exploration ground systems, and the Gateway space station.

1 Comment on "NASA and SpaceX Successfully Test Starship’s Lunar Lander Docking System"

  1. That test is meaningless. They already knew the docking system would be working.

    Now they only have to mount it on the rocket that’s not even remotely working – and send it into orbit where testing really only counts.

    As for the rendering of the Moon lander, I wonder where on the Moon are they gonna find a perfectly flat surface like that? Because even at the slightest inclination that thing is gonna topple over like nobody’s business and then nobody will be going home.

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