SpaceX readies massive Starship in preparation for test flight
The first launch of SpaceX’s massive rocket, called Starship, could be coming soon. The company shared a series of photos highlighting the vehicle’s progress ahead of its highly anticipated test flight.
Starship consists of two major components: a massive first-stage booster called the “Super Heavy” and an upper stage known as “Starship.” In typical SpaceX fashion, both aspects of the craft are designed to be fully reusable.
The company has been working its way towards the program’s first orbital test flight, which CEO Elon Musk says is coming soon, and could take place as soon as the end of February.
The historic mission would pair Starship vehicle Ship 24 with Super Heavy Booster 7. The duo were recently mated together in video footage released by SpaceX, captured from its South Texas facilities.
The dramatic drone footage, which was released on Monday, features the company’s Mechazilla — the gigantic launch tower at Starbase, Texas — which uses a giant set of chopstick arms to move around hardware.
According to SpaceX, the Mechazilla will serve as a launch and eventually a landing tower if all goes as planned. Mechazilla’s chopstick-like arms have a dual purpose: to help move hardware on and off the launch pad and to catch the returning Super Heavy boosters, supporting the returning rockets beneath their grid fins and lowering them onto a platform.
SpaceX first announced its plan to build the massive Starship in 2015, and has spent the intervening years designing, building, and mostly blowing up prototypes at its Texas-based facilities.
In 2020, the company proved that a short, squatty version of its Starship, called Starhopper, could fly. Resembling more of a water tower than a spaceship, the craft launched, hovered and then landed back on terra firma in Texas.
Following this success, SpaceX began the arduous process of building and testing the actual version of the rocket that would fly. Most of those attempts ended in flames, but one test was a complete success, giving hope that this rocket really could fly.
Starship will be powered by 6 of SpaceX’s next generation engines called the Raptor. Unlike the Falcon’s Merlin engines, Raptors would be fueled by methane and oxygen — ingredients that can be found on other planetary bodies like Mars. The Super Heavy would rely on its 33 Raptor engines to rocket into space.
To date, Ship 24 has successfully ignited all 6 of its Raptor engines as part of prelaunch testing called a static fire test. This is when a rocket is held down on the launch pad, and its engines are briefly fired so that engineers can ensure they are functioning as expected. To date, Booster 7 has lit up 14 of its 33 engines at once.
According to Musk, more static fire tests will take place ahead of the planned orbital test flight, including the lighting of all 33 Raptor engines for the first time.
Starships’s orbital flight test is a crucial milestone in its development. SpaceX has big plans for its mega rocket, including sending a crew of influencers on a trip around the moon. But that’s not all, in 2021, NASA selected Starship as its human landing system — a key component of the agency’s Artemis lunar program.
According to the contract awarded in April 2021, SpaceX will provide a version of its Starship to use as a vehicle to transport NASA astronauts from a lunar outpost called Gateway to the surface of the moon.
But first, it must prove that Starships can fly.
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