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SpaceX fires up world’s largest rocket booster on the first try

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has successfully fired up Super Heavy – the largest rocket booster in the world – on the first try, potentially opening the door for a significantly more ambitious ‘static fire.’

Known as Booster 3 (B3), SpaceX completed Starship’s first functional Super Heavy prototype around July 1st and rapidly rolled the rocket out and installed it on a customized mount previously used for testing and launching Starship prototypes. After a bit less than two more weeks spent finishing up Booster 3’s avionics and plumbing and installing one Raptor engine, Super Heavy sailed through its first cryogenic proof test attempt on July 12th.

Rather than flammable liquid methane and oxygen propellant, Super Heavy was loaded with liquid nitrogen – providing roughly the same extremely cold temperature and mass without risking a massive explosion. In the week after that success, technicians rapidly installed two more Raptor engines and completed final closeout work on the building-sized rocket. On July 19th, Super Heavy B3 came alive for the second time.

After a delay to this week, SpaceX closed the road, cleared the launch pad, and began fueling Super Heavy for the first time ever around 6:20 pm CDT (UTC-5) – six hours into Monday’s ten-hour window. Almost exactly mirroring a routine Starship wet dress rehearsal or static fire, the pad and rocket followed a well-documented choreography of tank farm activity, vents, and frost formation, culminating in Booster 3 successfully igniting three Raptor engines around 7:05 pm.

Unlike virtually all Starship prototypes ever tested, including the first fully-assembled ships’ first multi-Raptor static fires, Super Heavy Booster 3 – the first functional prototype of its kind – completed its first static fire ever on the first try. In the history of Starship testing, initial prototypes have never smoothly sailed through cryogenic proof or static fire tests on the first attempt. Almost without fail, minor to major issues have arisen either before or during initial test attempts as SpaceX worked through the basics of operating Starship tests.

Instead, despite the fact that B3 is quite literally the largest rocket booster prototype ever built in the history of spaceflight and the first of its kind, Super Heavy appeared to run into no obvious issues at all after it was properly prepared for its first two major tests. Put simply, Super Heavy’s smooth testing makes it abundantly clear that SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle design, production, and operations are rapidly maturing as the company speeds towards its first orbital launch attempt.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk says that SpaceX “might try a 9 engine firing on Booster 3” depending on how Booster 4 production progresses – presumably over the next week or two. By all appearances, SpaceX began stacking Super Heavy B4 – the booster tasked with supporting Starship’s first orbital launch attempt around July 16th. Based on B3 assembly, Booster 4 could be complete by mid to late August.

With nine Raptors installed, Super Heavy B3 could produce up to 1800 tons (~4 million lbf) of thrust during a brief static fire – just ~20% less than Falcon Heavy. Stay tuned for updates on Booster 3 and Booster 4!

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SpaceX’s first “Version 3” drone ship arrives at Port Canaveral

SpaceX has officially taken delivery of a third ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ named A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG), returning its East Coast booster recovery fleet to two strong.

Five weeks prior, senior drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) began a more than 8000 km (~5000 mi) journey from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Long Beach, California as part of SpaceX’s plans to return its West Coast launch facilities to active duty. Though it now appears that plans to begin the first dedicated polar Starlink launches out of Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) as soon as July have slipped to no earlier than (NET) August, drone ship OCISLY did arrive at its new Los Angeles home port on July 6th, completing a smooth four-week journey.

Nine days later, brand new drone ship ASOG has completed its own slightly ambitious journey from Louisiana to the East Coast of Central Florida, allowing SpaceX to begin preparing the vessel for its first Falcon booster landing.

As previously discussed on Teslarati, A Shortfall of Gravitas marks a significant visual departure from its siblings thanks to a number of apparent refinements and upgrades.

“Drone ship ASOG appears to be a fair bit sleeker and more optimized than its siblings. The substantial amount of extra equipment required to turn a barge into a ‘drone ship’ has been packaged in a far sturdier manner inside steel bunkers, whereas JRTI and OCISLY have generators, power supplies, computers, and communications equipment strewn about the edges of their decks in shipping containers.”

According to CEO Elon Musk, ASOG may also be SpaceX’s first truly autonomous drone ship.

“Musk says that ASOG is SpaceX’s first truly autonomous drone ship. While JRTI and OCISLY are both capable of autonomously staying in one specific location after being towed out to sea and prepared by a team of technicians, ASOG may be able to travel several hundred miles out to sea, recover and secure a Falcon booster with its Octagrabber robot, and then return to Port Canaveral to offload the rocket without a single person boarding the drone ship.” – July 12th, 2021

In footage shared by Musk of ASOG’s first sea trials, the drone ship was shown traveling at a significant clip under its own power – a first for a SpaceX drone ship. While Just Read The Instructions was technically upgraded with similarly capable thrusters and power generation capabilities in 2020, the drone ship has never been seen traveling at speed under its own power during early sea trials or operational booster recoveries.

Drone ship ASOG. (Richard Angle)
Drone ship OCISLY. (Richard Angle)

According to Elon Musk, A Shortfall of Gravitas is apparently SpaceX’s first “Version 3” drone ship, likely implying that versions 1 and 2 are respectively represented by OCISLY and JRTI. As such, while the second iteration of JRTI may technically share some of ASOG’s upgrades, it’s possible that new design choices mean that ASOG really is the first drone ship truly capable of autonomous operations. On the other hand, it’s also possible that drone ship JRTI has been capable of similar self-propelled feats since its June 2020 East Coast debut but that regulatory hurdles and complexities have prevented SpaceX from doing so.

Regardless, it’s safe to assume that SpaceX is a ways away from truly hands-free Falcon booster recoveries and that drone ship ASOG will be towed to and from landing zones – and accompanied by humans – on its first few missions.

Meanwhile, ASOG’s new ‘Octagrabber’ robot – used to remotely secure Falcon boosters at sea – has been staged on the dockside for imminent installation on the drone ship. As of mid-July, though, it’s unclear if SpaceX has any launches at all scheduled in the second half of the month, likely giving the company’s recovery team at least two weeks to prepare A Shortfall of Gravitas for its first booster recovery attempt – a rather literal baptism by fire.

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SpaceX to build world’s most advanced rocket engine factory in Central Texas

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has plans to build the “most advanced rocket engine factory in the world” in Central Texas to support the growing needs of Starship and Super Heavy.

If all goes according to plan, that facility could also become the highest-output rocket factory ever built, churning out hundreds of Raptor engines each year to outfit a vast interplanetary fleet of Starships and the earthbound Super Heavy boosters that will send them on their way to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Musk revealed plans for a dedicated Raptor engine factory on July 10th – shortly after showing off an impressive group of at least ten qualified Raptor engines staged inside a production tent at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory. In just the three days since that photo, SpaceX has installed three Raptor engines – possibly all of which were visible in the July 10th family photo – on the first functional Super Heavy booster prototype.

A day later, Musk revealed that SpaceX had finally settled on a crucial aspect of Super Heavy’s design, determining that operational Starship boosters will ultimately be outfitted with 33 more or less identical Raptor engines. Following another surprise Musk reveal earlier this month, that means that every two-stage Starship vehicle will require 39 to 42 Raptor engines – 36-39 sea level variants and three vacuum-optimized engines with larger nozzles.

While Raptor’s current design isn’t quite there, Musk says that SpaceX will debut an upgraded “Raptor 2” engine in the not too distant future, raising maximum thrust to 230 tons (~510,000 lbf). Aside from the removal of a few structural components required for engine gimballing on 20 booster Raptors, every engine on Starship – save for 3-6 vacuum variants – will thus be identical.

According to Musk, a new cutting-edge SpaceX factory located at the company’s expansive McGregor, Texas rocket development and testing facilities factory will ultimately mass-produce between 800 and 1000 Raptor 2 engines per year. Raptor Vacuum production will remain at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters alongside work on mysterious “new, experimental designs.” Under the new paradigm sketched out by Musk, Raptor would mirror SpaceX’s Merlin engine family – comprised of two commonized sea level and vacuum variants (Merlin 1 and Merlin Vacuum) for more than a decade.

A visual comparison of Merlin 1D (optimized for sea level) and Merlin Vacuum. (SpaceX)
Raptor and Raptor Vacuum, September 2020. (SpaceX)

With just a single high-volume variant required, Raptor 2 production could be extraordinarily efficient and would easily outpace any other large liquid engine production in history at 800-1000 engines completed each year. Technically, at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union was producing hundreds of R7 (Soyuz) booster engines annually and upwards of 1000+ per year if one counts the several different kinds of engines on each R7/Soyuz booster. However, the annual production of a single variant of any other large liquid rocket engine in history has never come close to the targets set out by Musk for SpaceX’s Raptor 2 factory.

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Elon Musk reveals SpaceX’s newest rocket-recovery drone ship

CEO Elon Musk has released the first official video of A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG), the newest member of SpaceX’s fleet of ‘autonomous spaceport drone ships’.

Purely from a visual perspective, drone ship ASOG represents a substantial departure from older siblings Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) and Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY). Whereas both JRTI and OCISLY expanded upon Marmac 300-series barges with rectangular wings and a variety of power generation and propulsion add-ons in a slew of tacked-on shipping containers, drone ship ASOG appears to be substantially refined. That process of gradual refinement is an integral part of SpaceX’s modus operandi and ASOG thus likely represents a culmination of years of lessons learned from 76 booster recovery attempts and 66 successful landings.

Perhaps even more significantly, Musk says that ASOG might by SpaceX’s first fully automated drone ship – potentially capable of propelling itself to and from recovery zones and securing landed Falcon boosters without hands-on human intervention.

Physically, drone ship ASOG appears to be a fair bit sleeker and more optimized than its siblings. On ASOG, the substantial amount of extra equipment required to turn a barge into a ‘drone ship’ has been packaged in a far sturdier, more permanent manner inside steel bunkers, whereas JRTI and OCISLY have generators, power supplies, computers, and communications equipment strewn about their decks in shipping containers.

Drone ship OCISLY and Falcon 9 booster B1058, October 2020. (Richard Angle)
Drone ship ASOG, July 2021. (SpaceX)

On JRTI and OCISLY, the only real protection against the blast of a landing Falcon booster and the threat of damage from high seas smashing into equipment come from two angled steel deflectors. ASOG, on the other hand, looks like a battle-hardened tank with almost no identifiable equipment visible under black steel covers and shielding. ASOG appears to be built to tolerate extreme rocket blasts and high seas, in other words.

Curiously, ASOG’s angular landing deck is also significantly smaller and slightly narrower than the rectangular decks on JRTI and OCISLY. Additionally, the vast majority of ASOG’s extra equipment has been installed on the drone ship’s aft end, seemingly resulting in deck load distribution that is intentionally asymmetric.

That design decision could be connected to Musk’s indication that ASOG is SpaceX’s first truly autonomous drone ship. While JRTI and OCISLY are both capable of autonomously staying in one specific location after being towed out to sea and prepared by a team of technicians, ASOG may be able to travel several hundred miles out to sea, recover and secure a Falcon booster with its Octagrabber robot, and then return to Port Canaveral to offload the rocket without a single person boarding the drone ship.

In theory, if realized, drone ship ASOG’s full autonomy could easily save SpaceX $1M or more per booster recovery. Still, it remains to be seen if SpaceX is actually at a point where at-sea booster recovery can be truly automated as described above. A Shortfall of Gravitas is currently on track to arrive at Port Canaveral on Thursday evening, July 15th.

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk talks Starship space telescopes, artificial gravity

In his latest batch of tweets, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that the company is already thinking about the many potential ways its next-generation Starship launch vehicle could be used in space.

Already, ideas publicly touted by the SpaceX CEO range from using Cargo Starships to clean up space debris with its mouth-like payload bay to a stripped-down, expendable variant of the rocket to rapidly send massive spacecraft throughout the solar system. Now, Musk says that SpaceX has also considered tethering Starships together in space to create a form of artificial gravity for passengers on multi-month journeys between planets, as well as the possibility of turning entire Starships into all-in-one orbital observatories a magnitude more powerful than Hubble.

Since SpaceX first began discussing Starship and its predecessors, the potential to launch massive space telescopes has always been close by. (SpaceX)

Apparently invoked during discussions with astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter, at least parts of the physics community are already considering the possibilities offered by using Starship as a sort of foundation or spacecraft bus that could carry and operate vast scientific payloads. While Starship has already been officially floated several times as a serious contender for launch services for major future missions, this concept would instead see Starship function as the spacecraft itself.

As of 2021, Starship has yet to reach space or orbit once, but SpaceX isn’t far from that milestone. Eventually, perhaps just a few years from now, Starship will have successfully launched to and operated in orbit dozens or even hundreds of times and become a mature and reliable spacecraft.

At that point, it wouldn’t be out of the question to entrust Starships themselves to serve as long-lasting scientific spacecraft, exploiting a ‘bus’ that could offer abundant power, propulsion, thermal management, navigation, and communications capabilities to any ‘hosted’ payloads. That includes extensively modifying Starships on the ground to create vast space observatories, among numerous other possibilities.

Given Starship’s low production cost, 9-meter (~30 ft) diameter, and nominal ability to deliver at least 100 metric tons (~220,000 lb) of payload to low Earth orbit (LEO), it’s not inconceivable that ships could be outfitted with massive telescopes and scientific instruments. Perhaps more importantly, drastically reduced payload constraints (more than an order of magnitude relative to the Hubble or James Webb telescopes) could allow major innovation in spacecraft/instrument design, radically lowering costs while still improving reliability, redundancy, and performance.

Meanwhile, Musk says that SpaceX has also considered tethering crewed Starships together and spinning them around the center of that tether to create artificial gravity for crewmembers on months-long journeys between Earth, Mars, and other planets. Among fan communities, the tethered gravity concept has been circulating ever since SpaceX first announced Starship in 2016. Loosely researched by NASA and other institutions for decades, no real experimental efforts – save for a single halting test during a 1960s Gemini mission – have ever been pursued.

For Starship, orbital refueling could easily allow SpaceX to cut crewed Earth-Mars transit time to 100 days or less – subjecting astronauts to significantly less time in microgravity than those that crew the International Space Station (ISS). The value proposition of artificial gravity on 3-month cruises is likely substantially less clear-cut given the far-reaching complexity and modifications required to make such a system functional and make Starships compatible.

Regardless, Musk rather cryptically says that SpaceX has considered the concept, though he didn’t elaborate on whether the company ultimately decided to drop the subject or pursue it further.

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SpaceX sets new goals for Falcon booster reuse goals after ten-flight milestone

Speaking virtually at Barcelona’s 2021 Mobile World Congress (MWC), CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has already set its sights on even more ambitious reusability goals for Falcon rocket boosters.

Less than two months prior, booster B1051 sent 60 satellites and an upper stage on their way to orbit, simultaneously becoming the first Falcon 9 first stage to ace ten orbital-class launches and landings, crossing a mostly symbolic – but still significant – milestone years in the making. SpaceX competitors – most notably the United Launch Alliance – have often held the ten-flight mark over its head as the latest in a long line of moving goalposts used to discredit, demean, and look down upon reusable rockets and SpaceX’s efforts to realize them.

Not long before it was clear that SpaceX would hit that 10-flight target with at least one Falcon booster, competitors working overtime to rationalize a lack of substantial investment into reusable rockets shifted their goalposts again, expanding rationales to require a fleetwide average of ten flights. Instead of explaining why SpaceX’s reusability plans could never work, as many dozens of aerospace executives have assuredly done over the last 5-10 years, the new attitude du jour is to claim that SpaceX’s ability to achieve its reuse goals was never actually in doubt and that the economics of full booster reuse simply can’t make economic sense!

Now, five and half years after Falcon 9’s first successful booster landing, four years after SpaceX’s first successful booster reuse, and seven weeks after a Falcon 9 first stage’s first ten-flight milestone, Elon Musk says that some of the company’s fleet of boosters are already “slated to fly 20 or possibly 30 times.” Never one to personally rest or allow his companies to rest on their laurels, SpaceX now has a new target to strive for as teams work to ramp and sustain Falcon 9’s launch cadence at record-breaking levels.

Back before Falcon 9’s Block 5 upgrade debuted in May 2018, Musk held a press conference in which he made it abundantly clear that it was SpaceX’s “unequivocal intent” to launch new Falcon boosters up to 10 times without refurbishment. Three years later, although SpaceX ultimately abandoned plans to recover and reuse Falcon 9’s upper stage to prioritize Starship development, Musk’s dream of cutting the cost of launch by a full magnitude has almost been realized.

Technically, if SpaceX had developed a reusable upper stage, Falcon 9 as it stands today could feasibly cost just ~10% of its list price (~$6 million. Factoring in the cost of a new expendable upper stage for each mission, the actual cost of a modern Falcon 9 launch with a flight-proven booster and payload fairing is closer to ~$18M. However, in the same June 2021 interview, Musk confirmed that the cost of Falcon 9 operations – as in refurbishment, recovery, consumables, and any other recurring work – is just 10% of the cost of launch, effectively confirming that Falcon 9’s Block 5 upgrade really did create a rocket booster that requires virtually no refurbishment.

B1051, SpaceX’s first ten-flight Falcon 9 booster. (Richard Angle)

Back in Musk’s 2018 conference call, he also noted that beyond plans for up to ten flights without refurbishment, Falcon boosters could feasibly be made to fly dozens or even 100+ times with occasional in-depth maintenance – not unlike modern aircraft. Three years later, Musk is now talking about launching certain Falcon boosters 20 or 30 times, while something approximating the recurring maintenance he once described has yet to crop up.

It’s possible, in other words, that SpaceX has found that Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters – which do need some small amount of refurbishment and inspection after each launch – can actually be flown 20 or 30 times without major rework. Ultimately, only time will tell, but Falcon 9 B1051’s 11th flight is expected – this time from the West Coast – as early as late July or August 2021, carrying SpaceX’s first or second dedicated batch of polar Starlink satellites. B1051 arrived at Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) in late June about a month after Falcon 9 B1049 – likely set to become the second booster to complete ten launches.

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk teases nine-engine Starship, Raptor upgrades

In his latest round of SpaceX-related tweets, CEO Elon Musk says that the company has plans to boost Raptor’s performance by at least 15% and the number of those engines installed on Starship by 50%.

Those updated goals came hand in hand with significant changes to the design and operation of both Starship and its Super Heavy booster, which at one point was expected to utilize a “Boost” variant of Raptor that would trade thrust vector control (TVC; i.e. gimballing) and a wide throttle range for far greater thrust. At least according to Musk’s latest account, that substantially different “Raptor Boost” variant is now no more.

On July 3rd, NASASpaceflight forum member and photographer BocaChicaGal captured photos of SpaceX delivering three new Raptor engines to its Boca Chica Starship factory. Two of those engines (RB3 and RB4) featured Raptor Boost labels and were likely the first engines of their kind to complete qualification testing in McGregor, Texas. As of their arrival in South Texas, it was assumed that Raptor Boost still represented a variant of the engine with almost 50% more thrust at the cost of gimbal and throttle authority.

However, Musk himself replied to some of the resulting tweets later that evening, revealing that Super Heavy’s outer ring of up to 20 “Raptor Boost” engines would indeed have no ability to gimbal but would still be able to throttle.

Later the same day, the SpaceX CEO clarified further, stating that the company now plans to upgrade Raptor’s existing design to boost engine thrust to ~230 tons (~510,000 lbf) while still maintaining a wide throttle range and optional thrust vector control. With such an engine, “all Raptors on [a Super Heavy] booster, whether fixed or gimbaling, would be the same.” The only unique aspect of “Raptor Boost,” then, would be their installation around the inner ‘ring’ of Super Heavy’s skirt and their resulting lack of gimbal authority.

It’s somewhat unclear, then, why two of the engines SpaceX delivered on July 3rd were labeled “RB#” and one explicitly outfitted with a name tag reading “Hello, my name is Boost.” Notably, a quick side-by-side comparison enabled by those photos strongly implies that Raptor Booster engine 3 (RB3) and Raptor 79 (R79) are virtually identical aside from RB3’s rerouted plumbing and unique mounting hardpoints. In other words, barring surprises, the “boost” nomenclature appears to be more vestigial than anything.

Ultimately, as Musk notes, if SpaceX manages to boost “Raptor 2” to 230 tons of thrust, a Super Heavy booster with 33 mostly identical engines would have a peak liftoff thrust around 7600 tons (~16.8 million lbf), translating to a thrust to weight ratio of more than 1.5. For a large rocket with liquid propulsion only, a TWR greater than 1.5 is very respectable and improves acceleration off the launch pad, reduces gravity losses in the first few minutes of ascent, and thus boosts overall efficiency.

Already, Musk’s implication that 33 engines could ultimately be installed on Super Heavy is a departure from comments the CEO made barely a month ago when he revealed a base increase from 28 to 29 engines with the possibility of expanding to 32 down the road. Also new is the implication that SpaceX is considering adding three more vacuum-optimized engines to Starship’s six planned Raptors, leaving ships with six Raptor Vacuum (RVac) engines and three sea level-optimized engines (the same variant on Super Heavy).

Musk says that SpaceX has yet to decide if Raptor Vacuum will be commonized with Raptor 2, boosting its thrust, or if greater efficiency will be pursued instead. Regardless, even with six 200-ton-thrust RVacs and three Raptor 2s, Starship would produce upwards of 2000 tons of thrust in vacuum, creating an upper stage with almost as much thrust as Falcon Heavy and a fully-fueled thrust to weight ratio of ~1.7 – even better than Super Heavy.

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SpaceX Super Heavy booster reaches full height as Elon Musk talks orbit

Just a few days after CEO Elon Musk said that SpaceX’s first true Super Heavy prototype was “almost done,” the booster has been stacked to its full height.

Standing more than 65 meters (~215 ft) tall, Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) assembly is now just a few major welds away from completion after SpaceX teams mated the final two sections of its propellant tanks and structure. Assembled separately out of approximately 12 barrel sections each made up of 2-4 steel rings, Booster 3’s methane tank (13 rings) and oxygen tank (23 rings) were stacked together on June 29th, just over six weeks after the process began.

Earlier the same day, speaking at the 2021 Mobile World Congress, Musk confirmed what was now fairly clear to most observers, stating that SpaceX is “going to do its best” to complete Starship’s first orbital (or, at least, space) launch attempt “in the next few months.” In other words, a several-month-old launch target of no later than July 2021 is most likely out of reach despite a strong effort from SpaceX.

The most significant technical hurdles still in the way involve a few incremental Starship milestones and, more importantly, the qualification of the largest and most powerful rocket booster ever built. Standing almost as tall as an entire two-stage Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy, Super Heavy is expected to weigh more than 3500 tons (~7.7 million lbs) and produce at least ~5000 tons (~11 million lbf) of thrust at liftoff – more than any other rocket booster in history, liquid or solid.

Borrowing heavily from Starship, Super Heavy is mostly built with the same techniques out of the same steel rings, stringers, and structures, save for a few booster-specific components. However, Super Heavy is also designed to use 29-32 Raptor engines while the most SpaceX has ever simultaneously installed, tested, or flown is three. In other words, while Super Heavy is in many ways simpler than Starship, it will still be treading plenty of new ground when it heads to the launch pad for the first time.

Booster 3 is sporting a mysterious and sturdy bracket-like structure holding a pressure vessel and some kind of plumbing. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Former Starship Suborbital Mount A has been modified for booster testing. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Plenty of final integration tasks remain before Super Heavy B3 will be ready to start qualification testing but SpaceX could feasibly be ready to roll the booster to the launch site within the next week or two. Once installed on a former Starship launch mount that’s been customized for booster testing, Super Heavy will likely be put through its first cryogenic proof and static fire test(s) to verify that the massive rocket is performing as expected. The static fire process could be fairly lengthy if SpaceX decides to incrementally increase the number of Raptor engines installed.

In the likely event that Booster 3 begins testing without engines installed, SpaceX will also have to go through the process of installing up to 29 Raptors while Super Heavy is sitting out in the elements on a launch mount. Based on experience with Starship, installing that many engines in situ could take at least several days – and maybe longer. All told, the fun is only just beginning.

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SpaceX Starship might skip early retirement for “hypersonic flight test”

In response to a Teslarati report on Starship SN16’s apparent transport to what amounts to a resting place for retired rockets, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that the vehicle may still have a shot at flight.

On June 16th, SpaceX technicians rolled Starship SN16 out of the Boca Chica factory’s high bay for the first time since the rocket was assembled to its full height. Measuring 9m (30′) wide, 50m (165′) tall, and some 100 to 200 metric tons (~220,000-440,000 lb) empty, SpaceX carefully moved the rocket from the build site to partially paved lot nearby, joining Starship SN15 in apparent retirement.

While SN15 had its three Raptor engines uninstalled and was removed from one of two suborbital launch mounts a few weeks ago despite Musk hinting at a possible reflight in the rocket’s future, neither Musk or SpaceX has confirmed that the only full-size flight-proven Starship has actually been retired.

Three weeks after it was transported there, Starship SN15 is still connected to a generator and gas supply, strongly implying that SpaceX is continuing to keep the rocket pressurized with nitrogen. That could just mean that the company wants to ensure that a keystone of Starship history survives until a proper permanent display stand can be set up but it could also imply that SpaceX wants to keep the option of reflight available for the time being.

Now, hours after Starship SN16 was rolled to the same area and entirely out of left field, CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX “might use SN16 on a hypersonic flight test.” Up to now, no Starship has traveled faster than a few hundred miles per hour and SpaceX’s high-altitude, three-engine prototypes appeared to actually reach their peak velocities while in an unpowered freefall – after powered flight, in other words. Even a basic supersonic flight would be new territory for the rocket.

Musk’s use of “hypersonic” implies that Starship SN16’s hypothetical flight test would reach a velocity at least five times the speed of sound (~1700 m/s or ~3800 mph) – at least a full magnitude faster than the next fastest Starship prototype. Based on the SpaceX CEO’s comment, it’s also safe to assume that Starship can reach hypersonic velocities under its own power – and likely only with three Raptor engines installed.

Starship SN16, May 28th. (Elon Musk)

Ultimately, given that Musk also stated that Starship SN15 “might” launch a second time, it’s impossible to gauge how likely it is that SN16 will ever attempt a “hypersonic flight test” or fly at all. While it would be undoubtedly spectacular, the prototype would likely need a week or more of preparation and testing at the suborbital launch pad, testing that would require employees to evacuate the area and thus directly delay work on SpaceX’s orbital launch site.

Only time will tell if SpaceX decides to take a slight detour before Starship’s first orbital launch attempt, scheduled as early as a few months from now. Stay tuned!

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says Starship will take over Starlink launches

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has reiterated plans for Starship to take over Starlink launches, eventually fully replacing Falcon 9’s role in the constellation.

Since dedicated Starlink launches began in May 2019, Musk, COO and President Gwynne Shotwell, and a few other SpaceX officials and executives have made it clear that the company would ultimately transition the task of launching and maintaining the Starlink constellation from Falcon 9 to Starship. Barring major surprises, Starship is being designed to be fully and rapidly reusable from the ground up, nominally making the system far cheaper to launch.

After Musk announced a radical redesign that replaced carbon composite structures with simple steel, Starship may even be far cheaper to build than Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy – despite being several times larger, heavier, more powerful, and more capable. Despite its relative shortcomings, though, Falcon 9 has become an extraordinarily reliable and available workhorse for SpaceX and has completed 28 operational Starlink launches – delivering ~1670 satellites to orbit – since November 2019.

However, while Falcon 9 has done and continues to do an extraordinary job of routinely launching satellites and astronauts, Starship promises to blow it out of the water. It might be several years before Starship is deemed safe and reliable enough to launch humans but SpaceX could feasibly start launching Starlink satellites on the rocket almost as soon as it begins orbital flight tests.

Thanks to the low cost of each Starlink satellite, likely now around ~$250,000, it would be surprising if SpaceX didn’t include at least a few dozen satellites in the early phases of orbital Starship flight tests – even if success is far from guaranteed. At some point, though, and perhaps quite quickly, Starship will safely make it to orbit, reenter, and touch down beside a Super Heavy booster a few times in a row, effectively demonstrating fitness to launch (uncrewed) payloads.

It could take a bit more proof to convince paying customers with satellites worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to entrust launch contracts to Starship but SpaceX itself – likely to be the builder and owner of the world’s largest satellite constellation for the indefinite future – has more flexibility to tailor its appetite for caution. With the capabilities Starship could feasibly offer, SpaceX might also be hard-pressed to just sit and wait.

Speaking at a conference in October 2019, Gwynne Shotwell revealed that a single Starship would be able to launch up to 400 Starlink satellites (~106,000 kg/230,000 lb) at a time – equivalent to more than six and a half dedicated Falcon 9 missions. Unofficial renders imagining the payload have made it clear that more than 300 satellites could fit inside Starship’s truly cavernous fairing with ease.

Simply put, even if early Starship launches somehow end up being five times more costly than a partially expendable Falcon 9 (i.e. >$75M), the per-satellite launch cost of Starlink missions would be no worse than Falcon while simultaneously delivering several times more satellites to orbit. In reality, unless SpaceX has to expend an entire ship, booster, and ~35 Raptor engines, the total cost of a Starship launch could already be cheaper than Falcon 9 even before factoring in the cost per Starlink satellite.

Even with a downright tranquil monthly launch cadence, a year of 300-satellite Starlink mission on Starship would more than double what Falcon 9 has managed with 28 launches in the last ~20 months. SpaceX is unlikely to be ready to support truly operational Starship Starlink launches or risk ~$75-100 million of satellites until sometime next year but it’s safe to say that the wait will be worth it.

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