SpaceX has completed a key static fire test of its next-generation Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster, keeping the massive launch system on track for its third orbital test flight attempt potentially as soon as next month.
Successful engine test paves way for Flight 3
The private space company test-fired all 6 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster on Friday at its Starbase facility in South Texas. This successful long-duration static fire brings SpaceX one big step closer to the highly-anticipated Flight 3 test of the 395-foot-tall Starship stack.
CEO Elon Musk confirmed the completion of the test in a tweet, stating all objectives were met. This paves the way for SpaceX to proceed with integrating the Starship spaceship on top of the booster in preparation for launch.
The entire process from static fire to liftoff could happen in the next 4-8 weeks if testing and integration continues to go smoothly, Musk added. That would put Starship’s next flight attempt sometime in January or February 2023.
Building on lessons from Flight 2
Flight 3 will build on the successes and failures from Starship’s second orbital launch test this past July. During that flight, the Super Heavy booster successfully lit its 33 Raptor engines and launched the Starship spaceship to the edge of space. However, only 2 of the ship’s 6 vacuum Raptors ignited as planned, causing it to fly a partial orbit and reenter the atmosphere early without achieving the intended objectives.
The booster stage did perform flawlessly though, nailing an unprecedented vertical powered landing back at the launch site. SpaceX will reuse that same Super Heavy (Booster 9) along with an upgraded Starship spaceship (Ship 25) for the upcoming Flight 3.
Engineers have worked through the holidays conducting multiple tests to validate design changes and improvements that should avoid the issues encountered with Ship 24’s Raptors. These include modifications to simplify the engines’ ignition sequence as well as avionics upgrades.
Goals for Flight 3 and beyond
The primary goal for Flight 3 is to successfully launch the full Starship stack to orbit, followed by separation and landing of both stages back at the launch site. This orbital flight profile will more closely mimic operational missions, providing key test data on the vehicle’s performance.
If achieved, it would cap a monumental year of progress for Starship’s development. Looking ahead to 2024 and beyond, SpaceX aims to launch the rocket on its first lunar voyage, followed by commercial flights carrying passengers and cargo. NASA has already tapped Starship to be a flagship vehicle for upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon.
|Starship Flight History
|Successful high-altitude test of Starship prototype
|Partially successful orbital test flight
|Next orbital test flight attempt
Significance of Raptor engine advances
Powering the behemoth Starship rocket are SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engines – which have themselves undergone rapid design iterations and reliability improvements over the past year. Advancements in Raptor performance and reusability have been key enablers fueling Starship’s overall development timeline.
The methane-fueled Raptors collectively generate an unprecedented amount of thrust, allowing Starship-Super Heavy to outlift any rocket ever built. For Flight 3, the booster’s 33 sea-level optimized Raptors will produce about 23 million pounds of max thrust at liftoff.
Meanwhile the 6 vacuum Raptors on Starship have been optimized for efficiency during the upper stage’s orbital burns. Fine-tuning the ignition sequence and reliably restarting these engines has been a central focus area since Flight 2.
And as evident by Booster 9’s historic landing in July, the Raptors have pioneered new reusability milestones – designed to fly quickly with minimal refurbishment between flights to enable Starship’s targeted rapid launch cadence.
Local community braces for next round of testing
While SpaceX engineers have kept busy preparing the vehicle, Starbase area residents have anxiously awaited the next round of testing and road closures. Cameron County officials confirmed enhanced roadblocks will be set up for the static fire and eventually the Flight 3 launch.
These temporary closures of Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach during hazardous operations have been controversial amongst locals frustrated by frequent disruptions over the past 2 years. Nonetheless, excitement is building for the chance to witness another historic Starship launch.
SpaceX’s breakneck testing cadence has delivered both spectacular triumphs and fireballs over that period. Area residents have enjoyed a front-row view rivaling NASA’s traditional launch spectating spots. Starbase’s location right beside village homes and South Padre Island beaches has offered jaw-dropping vantage points for milestone flights.
Many tourists time their local vacations around the launch schedule hoping for an up-close look at Starship’s awe-inspiring takeoffs. Regional leaders hope a successful Flight 3 could cement South Texas as America’s new premium rocket launch viewing destination.
Outlook for orbital refueling demonstrations
If the upcoming test flight hits all objectives, SpaceX will turn its focus toward demonstrating Starship’s in-space refueling capabilities. This complex orbital rendezvous and fluid transfer procedure is critical for enabling interplanetary missions.
It would involve launching separate Starship tanker ships to supply propellant to a Starship payload vessel already on-orbit. After multiple refueling launches to top up its tanks, the payload Starship would then have enough propellant onboard to escape Earth’s gravity and voyage to destinations like the Moon or Mars.
SpaceX recently moved a Starship tanker prototype (Ship 24) to the orbital launch pad – likely the test article to be used in initial refueling tests later in 2023. Before that happens though, engineers still need to validate Flight 3’s launch and landing abilities.
So while the Raptor static fire marked a small win by itself, it sets the stage for an even more monumental Flight 3 in the weeks ahead. Another epic rocket show poised to dazzle spectators in South Texas and viewers around the world.
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