SpaceX’s Starship rocket cruises through its first flight-like fuel test

It looks like SpaceX’s fully assembled Starship rocket sailed through a big test run on the first try.

With the completion of this test, SpaceX’s next-generation rocket has taken a huge step toward its first orbital launch attempt. The spacecraft is approximately 120 meters (~394 ft) long and 9 meters (~30 ft) wide, making it the largest rocket ever assembled. It is designed to launch over 100 metric tons (~220,000 lb) into low Earth orbit (LEO) in a fully reusable configuration. Upon liftoff, the Starship’s 33 Raptor engines will produce up to 7,590 tons (16.7 million pounds) of thrust, making it more powerful than any rocket in history by a large margin.

And on Monday, January 23, Starship will likely become the heaviest rocket ever after SpaceX fully loaded the vehicle with fuel. To most viewers’ surprise, it appears that SpaceX also completed the complex testing associated with this milestone without encountering any major issues.

The apparent success is surprising simply because it was not SpaceX’s preferred approach during Starship development. Since SpaceX began assembling the Starhopper in an empty field in Texas in 2018, the Starship program has been managed almost exclusively to prioritize speed and predict failure. The company has almost always preferred to build, test and learn from viable product prototypes as quickly as possible, even if it means failures are guaranteed.

Because SpaceX anticipated failures, it learned from them and always had another prototype ready to carry the torch forward. The starship models rarely completed ground or flight tests on the first try, as SpaceX was simultaneously learning—often disastrously—how to test and operate these vehicles. The culmination of the fail-as-choice strategy was a series of seven tests of the suborbital spacecraft—two short hops from identical prototypes and five launch and landing attempts of five more advanced prototypes between August 2020 and May 2021. On the fifth attempt, after four failures, the full-scale spacecraft successfully launched. to 12.5 kilometers (41,000 ft), stopped its engines, returned to Earth, re-ignited its engines, rolled over, and landed in one piece.

By all appearances, the campaign was the ultimate endorsement of SpaceX’s development strategy. However, in the second half of 2022, SpaceX decided to significantly change the Starship program’s approach to risk management and systems architecture. As a result, spacecraft testing has become very cautious over the past several months.

From failure speed to slow and steady

There’s a small chance that SpaceX will simply get lucky, but the first fully assembled wetsuit pre-test for the Starship seems to indicate that that caution has paid off. Combined, both missile stages – Ship 24 and Booster 7 – have together completed dozens of separate proof-of-fire tests since mid-2022. They’ve also successfully passed several very limited tests as they stack up.

After describing each prototype as carefully as possible, SpaceX finally pulled the trigger on January 23rd. Hours after adapting Starbase, the giant tank farm to its orbital launch site in Texas, SpaceX opened its gates and loaded Ship 24 and Booster 7 with up to 4860 tons (~10.7 million pounds) of cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid methane fuel in about 90 minutes. Once fully loaded, the combined weight of the rocket and fuel will likely exceed 5,000 tons (about 11 million pounds), making Starship the heaviest rocket in history. The heaviest rockets ever built, the Saturn V and N-1, weighed approximately 2,800 tons (~6.2 million pounds) fully loaded.

SpaceX was also able to drain the Starship and return its fuel to the pad’s ground storage tanks about four hours after filling up the rocket.

“Flight-like” test

company confirmed later that the test was “a complete flight-like rehearsal,” as it is suspected, and noted that the data gathered from it will help verify the complete launch countdown sequence, as well as the performance of the Starship and orbital plate for what flight-like operations are. Visible from unaffiliated webcasts such as NASASpaceflight’s confirm this.Soon after the Starship is fully loaded, for example, SpaceX Activation of the orbital launch mount fire extinguishing systemRehearsing for the moments before a rocket might fire its engines and fly, it seems.

At no point during the exercise did SpaceX appear to go into any kind of shutdown or abort, indicating that the rocket’s systems were working together well enough to complete smoothly on the first try. The only mildly worrisome behavior that emerged during the multi-hour test came shortly after the Starship launched. Booster 7 opened one of its methane vents to relieve pressure and instead appeared to spew liquid methane, producing a flammable cloud thousands of feet across. Most likely, the Super Heavy was a bit full, and the liquid vent was an intended response to this error. Fortunately, the methane cloud did not find an ignition source, and Starship proceeded to finish the test as planned.

Booster 7’s accidental liquid methane vent was undoubtedly the largest vent in Starbase history.

SpaceX has plenty of work left to prepare Ship 24 and Booster 7 for the Starship’s first orbital launch attempt. Booster 7 has yet to complete one or several more fixed fires, during which it can become the most powerful rocket ever tested. To reduce the risk, SpaceX will likely remove Ship 24 during Super Heavy testing, and only reassemble the rocket if Booster 7 passes its tests. SpaceX also needs to fix the board after static fire testing and work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to finalize the Starship’s first orbital launch authorization.

But after many false positives, Starship’s successful completion of rehearsal on the first attempt confirmed that the rocket’s orbital launch — for the first time — was indeed within reach.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket cruises through its first flight-like fuel test







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