SpaceX has completed another round of critical testing as it prepares for the third orbital test flight attempt of its next-generation Starship launch system. The massive Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster went through a full launch dress rehearsal and static fire test late last week at the company’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
Successful Static Fire Paves Way for Launch
On December 29th, SpaceX conducted a long-duration static fire test of the integrated Starship 25 vehicle stacked atop Super Heavy Booster 9. The 14 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster were fired for roughly 10 seconds, while the 6 Raptors on the Starship spaceship ignited for 7 seconds – simulating an actual launch.
This key test demonstrated the ability of Starship to remain structurally stable while loaded with over 10 million pounds of super-chilled propellant. It also verified the engines and ground systems will perform nominally leading up to liftoff.
“Good Starship static fire! Aiming for first orbital attempt soon,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted shortly after the successful completion of the static fire.
The test paves the way for SpaceX to proceed towards launching the 395-foot tall Starship rocket stack on a fully orbital flight demonstration for the first time as early as next week, pending data reviews and obtaining the required licenses.
Raptor Engine Improvements Enhance Performance
This latest test comes after Musk said the Raptor engines that will power Starship on its third flight have been upgraded for better thrust, efficiency and durability. The Raptor V2 engines can generate more than 230 tons of thrust at sea level, making them the most powerful rocket engines ever flown operationally.
“Lot of work since flight 2 to improve Raptor thrust, efficiency & durability for flight 3,” Musk explained in a recent tweet.
The upgrades should allow the reusable Super Heavy booster to better control and guide the vehicle through complex “hover slam” and “catch” maneuvers planned on later test flights. Improved engine performance will also be critical when Starship begins launching expensive payloads for customers.
Orbital Flight Profile
Assuming the post-static fire data reviews go smoothly, SpaceX could launch its third orbital Starship test flight as early as January 2023, pending Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval.
The mission profile will aim to replicate the objectives achieved on the second orbital flight test in July 2022. Starship will launch vertically from the ocean-side pad before the Super Heavy booster separates around 2 and a half minutes into flight.
Starship will then fire its engines further to propel the spaceship into orbit. After one trip around Earth, Starship will re-enter the atmosphere and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
Artist’s illustration of Starship in orbit after separating from Super Heavy booster during launch. (Image Credit: SpaceX)
Future Plans Taking Shape
SpaceX ultimately intends for Starship/Super Heavy to supplant all of its existing rockets to streamline space operations and lower launch costs. The fully reusable system will provide the heavy lift capability needed for missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Several key milestones must be shown on early test flights before Starship can safely launch more costly payloads for NASA, satellite companies or paying passengers. These include demonstrating successful booster recovery, high altitude “belly flop” maneuvers using body flaps, aerodynamic control, precise landings and rapid reuse of boosters & spaceships between flights.
|High Altitude Flight
|Completed on SN8, SN9, SN10 & SN15
|Completed on SN15
|Transition to Vertical Landing
|Completed on SN15
|Orbital Flight w/ Splashdown
|Completed on SN20 & SN21
|Rapid Launch Cadence
Table summarizing progression in key Starship test flight objectives
The latest static fire test represents tangible progress towards demonstrating the full launch system can be operated reliably and frequently.
Stay tuned in the coming days and weeks as SpaceX gears up for the epic third orbital test launch of Starship!
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