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SpaceX tops off Starship launch tower during Blue Origin crew launch briefing

On Sunday morning, SpaceX began the process of installing the last prefabricated section of Starship’s skyscraper-sized ‘launch tower’ around the same time as startup Blue Origin kicked off a preflight briefing for its first crewed suborbital launch.

Though both events are almost entirely unconnected and have no immediate impact on each other, the simultaneity almost immediately triggered comparisons between one of the most important media briefings in Blue Origin’s 21-year history and an average busy day at SpaceX’s South Texas Starship factory and launch site. Almost exclusively funded by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos since it was founded in September 2000, around two years before SpaceX, Blue Origin is on the cusp of its first crewed launch less than two weeks after Virgin Galactic completed its first fully-crewed test flight above 80 km (~50 mi).

Approximately 600 miles southeast of Blue Origin’s Van Horn, Texas launch and test facilities, in a different corner of the vast state, SpaceX was preparing for the latest in a long line of steps towards the completion of an orbital launch site for Starship – potentially the first fully reusable orbital rocket ever built.

First revealed more than three months ago in a cryptic post from owner Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is scheduled to launch passengers on its New Shepard rocket for the first time ever, marking the end of an extraordinarily long development period. Designed to be fully reusable, New Shepard is a small single-stage rocket powered by one liquid hydrogen and oxygen-fueled BE-3 engine capable of producing approximately 500 kN (110,000 lbf) of thrust at liftoff. Designed exclusively for the purpose of ferrying a few tourists above a mostly arbitrary 100 km (~62 mi) line separating Earth’s atmosphere and “space,” New Shepard is about the same diameter as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets but is just 15m (~50 ft) tall.

The small rocket launched for the first time in April 2015 and reached an apogee of ~94 km but instability ultimately destroyed the first New Shepard booster during its first landing attempt. Blue Origin successfully launched and landed New Shepard on its next test flight in November 2015, culminating in Bezos’ infamous “Welcome to the club!” comment after SpaceX successfully recovered a Falcon 9 booster for the first time one month later.

As of July 2021, Blue Origin has completed just 15 New Shepard test flights – 14 of which were fully successful – in six years. In the same period, SpaceX successfully recovered an orbital-class Falcon 9 booster for the first time, reused a Falcon booster on a commercial satellite launch, debuted Falcon Heavy, reused several orbital Cargo Dragon capsules three times each, debuted Crew Dragon, became the first company in history to launch astronauts, completed its first operational astronaut launch for NASA, hopped three Starship prototypes, flew five Starship prototypes to 10-15 km, successfully landed four Raptor-powered Starship prototypes, rolled out Starship’s first completed booster prototype, completed more than 100 successful orbital launches, flown the same Falcon 9 booster ten times (versus New Shepard’s record of seven flights), reused orbital-class boosters 68 times, created the world’s largest satellite constellation, and far, far more.

Along those lines, on Saturday, July 17th, SpaceX teams attached a massive crane to the seventh prefabricated section of a ‘launch tower’ that could eventually support Starship and Super Heavy stacking – and maybe even catch ships and boosters. On Sunday, not long after daybreak and about an hour before Blue Origin’s New Shepard-16 preflight briefing, that tower section lifted off under the watchful eye of several unofficial cameras operated by NASASpaceflight, LabPadre, and others. By the end of Blue Origin’s briefing, most of which involved executives or senior employees reading from scripts and none of which offered a look at actual flight hardware or “astronaut” preparations, the eighth launch tower section was mostly in place, creating a structure some 135m (~440 ft) tall.

By the end of NASASpaceflight.com’s unofficial six-hour stream, the outlet’s excellent and unaffiliated coverage of SpaceX erecting part of a relatively simple tower for the seventh time had been viewed more than a quarter of a million times. By the end of Blue Origin’s official preflight briefing for a crewed launch set to carry the richest person on Earth, the company had accrued around 20,000 views on YouTube.

Some might see ten times as many viewers flocking to an unofficial live stream of fairly mundane SpaceX construction over a briefing for the first crewed launch of a fully-reusable suborbital rocket and scoff. For those who watched both broadcasts, it’s likely less than shocking that spaceflight and rocket fans almost universally sided with a livestream showing something – anything! – happening over what amounted to a camera pointed at five people reading (mostly stale) statements off of teleprompters.

Barely 24 hours away from Blue Origin’s most significant launch ever, the company – save for a few low-res clips from Jeff Bezos – has yet to share a single new piece of media highlighting the mission’s actual New Shepard rocket, crew capsule, astronaut preparations, flight suits, launch pad, or any of the other dozens of things most spaceflight fans – and people in general – tend to get excited about. For whatever reason, Blue Origin has also worked with Texas to shut down the only quasi-public viewing area less than 10-20 miles away from New Shepard’s launch pad despite never having done so in 15 test flights.

SpaceX, on the other hand, may not have always been a perfect neighbor in Boca Chica but the company has mostly accepted the buzzing, near-continuous presence of spaceflight fans and members of the media who come to South Texas to see Starbase in person. More recently, SpaceX has actively let at least two media outlets (NASASpaceflight and LabPadre) install and operate several robotic cameras overlooking Boca Chica’s Starship factory and pad.

It’s impossible to condense it into one or two simple differences but it’s safe to say that SpaceX’s relative openness and a general willingness to engage with media and let public excitement and interest grow uninterrupted (when possible) is part of the reason that mundane SpaceX goings-on can accumulate a magnitude more interest than on unofficial channels than an official briefing for the most important event in Blue Origin’s history.

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SpaceX begins assembling first orbital Starship and Super Heavy booster

SpaceX has begun rapidly assembling the first orbital Starship prototype and the Super Heavy booster set to launch it isn’t far behind.

SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas rocket factory seemingly turned a corner in early July as sections of Starship 20 (S20) began to pop up around the site. Though parts labeled Starship “SN20” first appeared as far back as March 2021, the only unequivocal work on SpaceX’s first purportedly orbital-class Starship began in mid-June with the integration of the first engine section with mounts for six – not three – Raptors.

However, in line with SpaceX’s strict focus on maximizing the speed of Starship development and shortening the path to orbit, the company has frequently built Starship hardware before firmly assigning that hardware to any given ship, booster, or tank. In other words, until SpaceX actually begins stacking multiple completed rocket sections, there’s always a degree of uncertainty about the fate of any given ring, dome, or tank barrel. With Starship S20, that process began earlier this month and Super Heavy Booster 4 is likely to follow suit within the next few days – if it hasn’t already.

Since SpaceX unceremoniously rolled Starship prototype SN16 to an empty lot in mid-May, the company didn’t stack a single Starship part until the first week of July – unusual after a frenetic seven months spent building, qualifying, and launching Starships SN8, SN9, SN10, SN11, and SN15 and testing test tanks SN7.2 and BN2.1. Around the same time as Starship SN15 became the first prototype to successfully complete a high-altitude test flight and land in one piece, news broke that SpaceX was striving to perform Starship’s first orbital test flight with Ship 20 (S20) and Booster 3 (B3) as early as July.

Eventually, Booster 3’s orbital launch assignment shifted to Booster 4 as it became clear that the former prototype wasn’t meant to fly, but Starship S20 remained. More likely than not, the almost two-month gap between Starship SN16’s instant retirement and the start of the next flightworthy prototype’s assembly can be explained by the significant changes, upgrades, and undecided design decisions required to jump to S20.

Beyond the need for a thrust structure capable of supporting three sea-level Raptors and three vacuum-optimized engines, Starship S20 would need a full heat shield with thousands of tiles; orbital-class communications and avionics; and the general polished fit and finish required for an orbital launch attempt to have a good shot at producing the data needed for it to be valuable. SpaceX appeared to conclude that those stars were aligned in early July.

Starship S20 entered the assembly or ‘stacking’ phase on July 3rd. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
S20’s forward dome section was likely installed on July 13th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Later the same day, S20’s aft engine section and leg skirt were mated. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Two weeks after the first stack, Starship S20 is already approximately half-assembled and the last section of the vehicle’s tanks is almost ready for installation. What could be Starship S20’s nosecone is also in the late stages of assembly, though SpaceX has yet to even attempt to fully cover a nose in heat shield tiles and getting that process right could take an attempt or two.

Booster 4 rings are pictured here on the bottom and right. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Meanwhile, as evidenced by the booster common dome section hanging in midair in the image above, the assembly of Super Heavy booster 4 (B4) – the same booster tasked with supporting Starship’s first orbital launch attempt – may have begun on July 15th. If the Super Heavy common dome assembly was simply being moved relocated, a separate four-ring section has been staged outside of the high bay to kick off Booster 4 stacking within the next few days.

All told, it’s not inconceivable that both of the first orbital-class Starship and Super Heavy prototypes will be fully assembled and ready for testing – integrated or otherwise – sometime in August.

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SpaceX schedules first Super Heavy static fire after installing three Raptors

After an apparent false start on Wednesday morning, SpaceX has distributed a second safety alert among Boca Chica residents in anticipation of the first static fire of a Super Heavy booster as early as July 15th.

Delineated by highway and beach closures filed in advance with Cameron County, Thursday’s window stretches from 12pm to 8pm or 10pm CDT (UTC-5), giving SpaceX 8-10 hours to put the first functional Super Heavy booster prototype through its most challenging tests yet.

Known as a static fire, what is a mostly routine test for operational rockets is a bit more of a challenge for a first-of-its-kind prototype. Notably, on July 12th, Super Heavy Booster 3 survived its first ‘cryogenic proof’ pressure test, withstanding the thermal and mechanical stresses created when the rocket was filled with a few hundreds tons of liquid nitrogen and the expanding gases created as that cryogenic fluid then warmed and boiled. However, Booster 3 has yet to perform any kind of test involving the combustible, explosive liquid oxygen and methane propellant needed to fuel Raptor engines.

By all appearances, SpaceX aims to roll Super Heavy’s first wet dress rehearsal (WDR; like a ‘cryo proof’ with real propellant) and static fire into one busy day of testing. That combined WDR and static fire will likely be the first time ever that a launch vehicle as large as Super Heavy has attempted to pressurize its tanks autogenously, referring to the process of using a rocket’s own fuel and oxidizer to generate ullage gas. Starship prototypes notoriously struggled with their smaller autogenous pressurization systems – and jerry-rigged alternatives – on several occasions.

Super Heavy booster prototype B3 survived its first major test on Monday, paving the way for a possible static fire later this week. (NASASpaceflight.com)
SpaceX has installed three Raptors on Super Heavy Booster 3 in the days shortly before and after its cryo proof. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

In other words, even an ignition-free wet dress rehearsal test completed with autogenous pressurization would be a major success and hurdle surmounted for Super Heavy. If SpaceX manages to perform the first booster WDR and static fire on the same day, it would indicate that the company has extreme confidence in Super Heavy.

Despite an aborted attempt on July 11th, SpaceX outfitted the rocket with one Raptor on Saturday, July 10th and installed another two engines in quick succession on Tuesday, July 13th – likely in an odd triangular configuration on the booster’s central nine-engine ‘thrust puck.’ Why that particular configuration was chosen instead of something more symmetric is unclear but it does decrease the odds of a multi-engine test on Super Heavy’s first static fire without a clear reason to assume that testing such an odd engine placement would provide some valuable insight.

In comparison, two engines on opposite sides of Super Heavy’s inner ‘ring’ or three engines forming a line across that ring are two configurations that boosters are very likely to use during landing burns. Regardless, according to Next Spaceflight’s Michael Baylor, SpaceX may start Super Heavy B3’s static fire test campaign with just one engine, so it’s not impossible that the current configuration is just a part of the incomplete process of installing five or more engines.

As with all Starship development, it’s equally likely that Super Heavy’s first wet dress rehearsal and static fire test attempts will slip late into the window, to Friday, or even to the week of July 19th. Stay tuned for updates!

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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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SpaceX Super Heavy booster survives first major test

A SpaceX Super Heavy booster prototype has survived its first major test seemingly without issue, potentially opening the door for a static fire test with several Raptor engines as early as this week.

Not long after the latest line of propellant storage implements was transported from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas factory to Starship’s first orbital launch pad, the company officially closed the one highway to the pad and nearby beach. By ~4:30pm CDT (UTC-5), the first major test of an integrated Starship booster was under way and clouds of cryogenic vapors were pouring off of Super Heavy B3’s thrust (aft) dome as the humid air came in contact with steel cooled to around –330°F (–200°C).

While technically known as a cryogenic proof test, Booster 3’s first major challenge looked more like a basic pressure test. Curiously, only small amount of frost – the telltale sign of a ‘cryo proof’ – formed on the outside of Super Heavy’s ~65m (~215 ft) tall propellant tanks in two hours of activity, indicating that SpaceX likely chose a more cautious approach to Booster 3’s first cryo proof.

In short, Booster 3 was likely filled with a few hundred tons of liquid nitrogen relative to the more than 3000 tons its tanks could easily hold and the fraction of that total capacity SpaceX’s suborbital launch site can actually supply. Teams have been working around the clock for months to outfit Starship’s first orbital launch site with enough propellant storage for at least one or two back to back orbital launches – on the order of 10,000 tons (~22M lb) – but the nascent tank farm is far from even partially operational. That’s left SpaceX with its ground testing and suborbital Starship launch facilities, which appear to be able to store around 1200 tons of propellant.

Assuming the suborbital pad’s main liquid oxygen and methane tanks can also both store and distribute liquid nitrogen, which isn’t guaranteed, SpaceX thus has the ability to fill approximately 30-40% of Super Heavy B3’s usable volume. Frost lines aren’t always a guaranteed sign of fill level but if they’re close, SpaceX likely filled Booster 3’s tanks just 5-10% of the way during the rocket’s first cryoproof.

Based on loud, visible venting that occurred throughout the process, it’s likely that Super Heavy’s first cryo proof was more focused on pressure testing with just a small taste of the true thermal shock, loads, and general mechanical stress Starship boosters will have to withstand when loaded with thousands of tons of propellant and generating thousands of tons of thrust with dozens of Raptor engines.

Following July 12th’s test, Super Heavy B3’s next steps could either be one or several additional cryo proofs or a static fire test with an unknown number of Raptor engines installed. The booster completed Monday’s testing with one Raptor installed, while the most engines ever tested simultaneously is three. SpaceX has yet to update backup test windows scheduled from noon to 10pm CDT on July 13th, 14th, and 15th, any of which could be used for additional cryo proof or static fire testing.

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SpaceX begins installing Raptor engines on first Super Heavy booster

SpaceX has installed a Raptor engine on a Super Heavy booster prototype for the first time, defying expectations and setting the rocket up for two major tests as early as this week.

On Thursday, July 8th, SpaceX briefly filled Super Heavy Booster 3’s (B3) propellant tanks with benign nitrogen gas. The vehicle seemingly came to life for the first time that morning when it was spotted using its tank vents – a generally incontrovertible sign that the complex mechanical system that is a rocket is functional. Later that day, the public highway and beach adjacent to SpaceX’s launch site were briefly closed for what was expected to be an ambient pressure and/or cryogenic proof test.

Booster 3 never got to the cryogenic proof test – easily confirmed thanks to the frost that forms on most rockets’ exteriors as main tanks are filled with extremely cold liquid nitrogen. No such frost formed, no major venting occurred, and the road was only closed for the first two hours of a six-hour test window.

According to Next Spaceflight’s Michael Baylor, SpaceX did complete a “brief ambient proof” during that relatively short closure, though very little activity was visible during the test. Friday’s 14-hour test window was canceled the next morning, leaving SpaceX the rest of the weekend to prepare the first functional Super Heavy booster for its first truly challenging test – cryo proof.

Instead, late on Saturday, July 10th, SpaceX rolled Raptor 57 (R57) from build site to launch pad and began installing the engine on Booster 3 just a few hours later. Prior to Raptor 57’s installation, most prominent (albeit unofficial) voices in the SpaceX fan community anticipated no more than cryogenic proof testing for Booster 3 – no static fires, in other words.

However, it was fairly apparent that Super Heavy Booster 3 and the modified suborbital launch mount it was installed on were both outfitted for testing more complex than a cryo proof alone. Notably, B3 rolled to the pad with multiple labeled methane pressure vessels (COPVs), extensive plumbing, and autogenous pressurization control panels installed – all of which continued to be actively worked on after the booster was installed at the launch site.

B3 features a myriad of plumbing, virtually none of which would be useful for cryo proof testing with liquid nitrogen. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

While it’s technically not impossible to build a ground testing Starship prototype that’s capable of a wide variety of tests but never actually used to its full extent, doing so would be well out of character for SpaceX and make little sense in general. As such, it’s not a major surprise that SpaceX has now begun to install Raptor engines on Super Heavy Booster 3. What is surprising is that SpaceX is installing Raptor engines on a first-of-its-kind Super Heavy prototype before any fully integrated booster has completed cryogenic testing.

Based on Starship’s ~18-month test history, there is a real possibility Super Heavy B3 will fail during cryogenic proof testing. Even accepting that SpaceX’s testing processes and expertise have matured dramatically after dozens of Starship tests on the ground and in flight, the chance remains. In other words, SpaceX’s decision to begin installing Raptors on Super Heavy before ensuring structural and mechanical integrity implies some combination of unusual confidence in a prototype as unproven as Booster 3 and a distinct lack of concern at the prospect of losing at least two Raptor engines in a hypothetical test failure.

Knowing SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk’s goals for Raptor, the latter implication isn’t much of a surprise but it’s always interesting to have direct visual evidence that Raptor is, in fact, so cheap to build and easy to install that the minor effort and few days of possible delays required to reduce the risk of losing multiple engines just aren’t worth it.

As of July 11th, a second Raptor engine is staged and waiting for installation beside Booster 3. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

As such, it’s now clear that Super Heavy Booster 3 will have at least one or two Raptor engines installed during its very first cryogenic proof test – currently no earlier than 12pm to 8pm CDT (UTC-5) on Monday, July 12th. Assuming SpaceX’s confidence is well-placed and Booster 3 passes its first cryogenic tests without issue, the real question now is how many Raptors will be installed and ignited during Super Heavy’s first static fire test?

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SpaceX Starship booster weathers thunderstorm ahead of first ‘cryo proof’

Meshing with road and beach closures requested earlier this week, Next Spaceflight reports that a SpaceX Super Heavy booster is scheduled to attempt a ‘cryo proof’ test for the first time as early as Thursday, July 8th.

Known as Booster 3 (B3), SpaceX rolled the first functional Super Heavy prototype – the largest rocket booster ever completed – from the factory to the launch pad on July 1st. One week later, SpaceX appears to be on track to kick off Super Heavy’s first fully-integrated qualification testing, building off of an apparently successful campaign of pressure testing with booster test tank BN2.1. After completing several tests, BN2.1 was rolled back to a scrapyard near SpaceX’s Boca Chica factory, while part of the custom-built stand used for the campaign was then reinstalled on one of the two ‘suborbital mounts’ used for Starship testing over the last year.

Mere days after Mount A’s modifications were completed, Super Heavy Booster 3 was transported to the pad and installed atop it. For whatever reason, SpaceX technicians and engineers spent the next week scouring the rocket’s exterior and interior with the help of an army of boom lifts, turning the basic structure into a functional pressure vessel with all necessary power, telemetry, and plumbing.

A few days before the storm. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

99% of that closeout work could have seemingly been done under the cover of SpaceX’s high bay, where Booster 3 was assembled out of dozens of steel rings and domes, but the work appears to have been completed regardless. Workers had to contend with routine South Texas downpours and thunderstorms on Tuesday and Wednesday but were otherwise subjected to fairly mundane winds and weather.

Conditions were most dramatic on Tuesday, with torrential rain only interrupted by the occasional lightning bolt – though Booster 3 and the orbital launch pad’s skyscraper-sized launch tower appeared to make it through the day strike-free.

SpaceX’s orbital Starship launch tower (left) and Booster 3 (right) narrowly missed at least one large lightning strike. (NASASpaceflight.com)

Now seemingly fully outfitted with all necessary avionics, wiring, and plumbing, Booster 3’s next major objectives will be ambient and cryogenic proof tests, referring to the process of verifying the structural integrity of the rocket first with benign nitrogen gas and later with supercool liquid nitrogen. SpaceX has performed at least a dozen or two ‘cryo proofs’ over the last 18 months and, at this point, qualification testing is fairly routine.

However, Super Heavy B3 is the largest rocket booster ever built and testing such a massive rocket will necessarily force SpaceX to tread some new ground. In fact, it’s not actually clear how exactly SpaceX will perform Booster 3’s first cryo proof given that the suborbital launch complex hosting it has nowhere near enough cryogenic storage capacity to fully fill Super Heavy with more than 3000 tons (~6.6 million lb) of liquid nitrogen.

As always, testing massive, brand-new rockets is no simple feat, so delays are possible – if not outright likely. Regardless, Super Heavy B3’s first test window is scheduled from noon to 8pm CDT (UTC-5) on Thursday, July 8th, with two backups from 6am to 8pm on July 9th and 12pm to 8pm on July 12th. Stay tuned for updates on the first tests of a full-size Super Heavy booster!

Booster 3. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

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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 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 rolls largest rocket booster ever built to the launch pad

Six weeks after assembly began, SpaceX has completed Starship’s first true Super Heavy booster prototype, rolled it out of its ‘high bay’ nest, and installed the building-sized rocket at the launch pad.

Standing some 65 meters (~215 ft) tall, Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) is the same height as an entire two-stage Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft and is expected to singlehandedly weigh six times more than a fully-fueled Falcon 9 when loaded with liquid oxygen and methane propellant. Once Super Heavies are eventually outfitted with a full 32 Raptors, more engines than any other rocket in history, the booster will also produce more than twice the thrust of NASA’s Saturn V Moon rocket – still the most powerful vehicle ever flown.

Assembled out of 36 steel rings, three tank domes, and dozens of other major components, Super Heavy B3 borrows heavily from the Starship production apparatus SpaceX has built and refined over the last ~18 months. Boosters use the same welding and integration jigs, facilities, and strategies and are built out of the same steel rings, stringers, stiffeners, and dome ‘gores.’

In some ways, Super Heavy boosters are actually a good deal simpler than Starships, which require a custom nose cone, secondary ‘header’ tanks, extra plumbing, actuating flaps, a heat shield with thousands of tiles, and more. Boosters, by comparison, require no heat shield and only need two main tanks made out of identical steel rings. However, all three Super Heavy domes (forward, common, and thrust) are mostly custom or require major modifications on top of parts shared with Starship domes.

A panorama of Super Heavy Booster 3, now the largest rocket stage in the world. (Starship Gazer)

Speaking on June 30th, Elon Musk revealed that Booster 3 was “very hard to build” and would be exclusively used for ground tests, reiterating that Super Heavy B4 is currently the first booster scheduled to fly. Curiously, the SpaceX CEO also said that “much of [Super Heavy’s] design” would be changed between Booster 3 and Booster 4, raising questions about what the company hopes to gain from Booster 3 “ground tests.”

Regardless, those tests are now on track to begin as early as Monday, July 6th after SpaceX transported Super Heavy Booster 3 from the factory to the launch pad and rapidly installed the rocket on a test platform on July 1st. Following in the footsteps of Starship, Super Heavy’s first hurdle will likely be an ambient proof test, in which nitrogen gas is used to check for leaks and verify general structural integrity under pressure.

Once complete, Booster 3 will be put through a cryogenic proof test, effectively replacing gaseous nitrogen with its supercooled liquid equivalent to simulate the immense thermal and mechanical stress incurred by similarly cold liquid oxygen and methane propellant. How exactly that test will be done is unclear given that Super Heavy can feasibly hold more than 3100 tons of liquid nitrogen and nowhere near that much storage capacity has been installed. The most important goal of cryo proof testing is to demonstrate that Super Heavy is structurally sound with its tanks pressurized to nominal flight pressures – likely at least 7-8 bar (~100-120 psi).

If successful, there are two possible routes SpaceX could go: more cryogenic proof testing at higher (and thus potentially destructive) pressures or static fire testing with one or several Raptor engines installed. Given Musk’s statement that the first flightworthy Super Heavy booster would implement major design changes, it’s unclear if Booster 3 is of a high enough fidelity to warrant static fire testing or if SpaceX has effectively turned the Super Heavy prototype into a massive ‘test tank’ instead.

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