SpaceX has completed a series of critical engine tests on its Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster in preparation for a third attempt at an orbital test flight in early 2024. The private space company is racing to debut its next-generation launch system that it hopes will one day transport crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Lead Up to Latest Tests
SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket are central to CEO Elon Musk’s ambitions to make humanity multiplanetary. The combined 394-foot-tall (120 meter) vehicle will be the most powerful launch system ever built, outmatching NASA’s Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the Moon.
After two orbital test flight attempts in 2021 and 2022 ended prematurely with spectacular explosions, SpaceX went back to the drawing board to qualify its engines and avionics systems. The company spent much of 2022 focused on a series of incremental ‘hop’ tests using single Raptor rocket engines to trial a host of vehicle upgrades and refine landing techniques.
Triple Static Fire of 33 Raptor Engines
On December 21, 2022, SpaceX performed its most significant Starship engine test this year. Teams at the company’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas loaded 33 of the next-gen Raptor engines onto the Super Heavy booster. Then they ignited all 33 simultaneously for 10 seconds in a hold-down static fire test.
The roaring test demonstrated Super Heavy’s ability to withstand engine start pressures and thermal conditions expected during launch. Critically, it also qualified the ignition sequence, thrust vector control, propellant flows and other mission-critical systems.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk hailed it as a “great 33 engine test” and a major milestone on the path to orbit. The 10-second test firing sent towering plumes of steam hundreds of feet in the air and visibly shook the launch infrastructure. An extended 14-second test days later further stressed the engines and hold-down clamps.
Deorbit Burn Simulation with 26 Raptors
On December 27, teams rolled the Starship upper stage back to the launch stand mounted with 26 Raptor engines. This test focused on simulating the crucial deorbit and re-entry burn the vehicle will perform before attempting to land back on Earth after launch. The 20-second static fire saw Starship powered up to its full thrust of more than 6 million pounds.
|Super Heavy Booster
|10 & 14 second tests
|Starship Upper Stage
|20 second test
Table summarizing recent static fire tests on Super Heavy and Starship stages
The test demonstrated the ability to reignite multiple engines in space after long coast phases. It also qualified thrust vector control of engines gimbaling independently to control the rocket’s orientation during re-entry.
Path to Orbital Flight Attempt #3
The successful completion of the static fire campaign has SpaceX tracking toward a third orbital launch attempt of the integrated Starship-Super Heavy system as early as January 2024.
Some remaining steps include further checkouts of ground support equipment, a wet dress rehearsal and a full blown static fire of the mated rocket. Teams still need to integrate the flight Starship’s nose section and install thermal protection tiles on both stages. Regulators will also complete an extensive flight readiness review before granting a launch license.
If the next launch mirrors the prior attempts, the Super Heavy booster will detach around 2 minutes 45 seconds into flight. It will then descend to land 20 miles offshore on a sea platform or back on land. The Starship upper stage will continue the rest of the 90+ minute test flight to orbit and re-enter attempting a controlled landing.
SpaceX will consider the mission a success if it learns useful lessons about how the vehicle performs even if it does not nail the landing. Each Raptor engine and flight is incredibly intricate, making progress non-linear at times. But with the orbital launch attempts and staic fires now numbering into the dozens, the rocket’s reliability improves with every outing.
What Comes Next
Once SpaceX has a full-fledged orbital Starship test under its belt, the program will shift focus to efficiency enhancements and qualification for crewed flights. Near term goals center on launching Starship-based satellite megaconstellations to provide global broadband coverage. The launch system could also start launching cargo to establish propellant depots on the Moon and Mars within the next 5 years.
If progress toward orbital refilling Starship continues smoothly, SpaceX believes crewed test flights to orbit, around the Moon and all the way to Mars could occur before 2030.
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