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SpaceX hot fire tests its Starship vehicle three times in four hours



Picture of Starship on the start plate.
Enlarge / The sun is shining around the fin on Starship SN8 on December 9, 2020.

Trevor Mahlmann

On Wednesday in South Texas, SpaceX fired up its latest Starship prototype not once or twice. Rather, engineers and technicians drove and tested their SN9 prototype and its Raptor rocket engines three times in less than four hours.

After the first of three tests, SpaceX founder and chief engineer said on Twitter: “Today at SpaceX it̵

7;s about practicing Starship engine start. The ship is held down by massive taps while the engines are fired.” After the third test, Musk confirmed that all three tests were completed without a major problem.

Performing three tests like this in quick succession is a remarkable achievement, and it points to the maturation of spacecraft hardware, ground systems and procedures for SpaceX’s Starship launch program. Musk said the goal is to reach a point where one can “jump in and go” to Mars. Such an ability remains years into the future, if ever realized. But the company seems to be making progress towards a robust launch system.

Assuming that data from Wednesday’s engine tests are favorable, the next step for SN9 will probably go and fly. The vehicle is already on the launch rack, and Musk and his engineers will now conduct a “contingency” review in advance of what is expected to be a new test flight of around 12.5 km, similar to the aircraft that the SN8 vehicle performed in December. The goal will be to succeed, after SN8 met a burning end at the landing site after an otherwise near-perfect flight.

SpaceX has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch the SN9 vehicle on Thursday, Friday or Saturday from the facility near Boca Chica Beach, in South Texas. It is possible that they will be able to turn SN9 for a flight attempt as soon as Thursday. However, there are concerns about winds at the upper level, which appear to be hostile until at least Saturday.

Sources indicated that SpaceX is eager to continue flying SN9, as it has almost completed the installation of the next Starship prototype, SN10, at nearby high bay facilities. The company is pushing ahead to fly this vehicle perhaps as late as the end of January, as it has several other prototypes in different construction states.

The short-term goal is to demonstrate an orbital flight capacity for Starship. To do this, the company must first build and test the Super Heavy rocket, which will serve as Starship’s first leg. This dramatic test will see a Starship launch into orbit, and then determine if it can safely return to Earth using a combination of heat shield tiles on its atmospheric side, and a complex set of maneuvers to bleed speed and finally create a controlled landing.

In an interview published earlier this month, SpaceX President and CEO Gwynne Shotwell told Ars that she thought it was more likely than not that this orbital flow test would take place in 2021.




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