For the first time Tuesday night, a full prototype of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle fired up its engine. After ignition, the Raptor rocket engine was found to burn for about four seconds. At the end of this test at the South Texas launch site, the vehicle was still standing. About 90 minutes after the test, SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk confirmed that the test fire was good, proverb“Starship SN4 passed static fire.”
Tuesday night’s test, which took place at 8:57 p.m. local time in Texas (Wednesday 01:57 UTC), took place eight days after a successful pressure test of this Starship prototype, known as SN4. Engineers will now review the data before possibly performing another static fire test or small jump. Ultimately, if this vehicle survives additional tests, it could jump 150 feet over the rugged Texas lowlands.
This test also took place less than a week after NASA awarded SpaceX a $135 million contract to develop Starship as a lunar lander — a vehicle for transporting cargo and crew from lunar orbit to the surface and back. While Starship is the most ambitious of three landers NASA is considering as part of its Artemis program, it’s also the only one actively testing full-scale prototypes.
Spaceship SN4 STATIC FIRE!
The first time a Raptor has launched on a SpaceX starship. They’ll be reviewing it, so let’s hope the data shows it was a good test!
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) May 6, 2020
Last August, SpaceX flew a stocky vehicle called Starhopper with a single Raptor engine. The purpose of this vehicle was to test the basic lines for the Raptor engine and see if the flight could be controlled for a safe ascent and descent. Although the Starhopper made a hard landing, it survived this test and SpaceX went on to build a full prototype of the Starship.
Since November 2019, the company has lost three full-scale Starship prototypes during cryogenic and pressure testing. The most recent outage came on April 3. SN4 is the first vehicle to pass the pressure test to continue work. Now it has taken the crucial step of igniting at ascent pressure – a grueling test given the challenges of working with super-cooled fuels at high pressure – then shutting down safely.
SN5 is waiting in the wings
The vehicle on the Texas trail isn’t Starship’s full configuration, without a nose cone, flaps, and other features necessary for flight. However, it has most of the vehicle, including the liquid methane and liquid oxygen tank structure. These propulsion guts are the most difficult parts of a rocket to control, and static fire testing is the ultimate test.
As part of its fast-paced, iterative design process, SpaceX has already stacked SN5, the next Starship prototype. It could very well fly higher than SN4, giving SpaceX engineers more and more data as they try to make sense of their new, high-performance rocket ship.
Starship is the “top stage” of a two-piece, fully reusable launch system that SpaceX is developing. The ultimate goal of the company is for the “Super Heavy” rocket to launch Starship into orbit, where it can either carry cargo to a specified destination or carry dozens of passengers.