Less than a month ago, SpaceX shot a full prototype of its Starship vehicle to a height of 150 meters above South Texas before returning it safely to the ground. On Thursday, the company did it again with the latest version of the vehicle, called Serial Number 6 or SN6.
When outside temperatures rose to the mid-90s Fahrenheit shortly after noon, the prototype was charged with liquid methane and liquid oxygen before igniting the single Raptor engine. This off-center engine propelled the vehicle into the air at a slight angle, where it moved sideways for several tens of meters before descending and coming to a stop at the launch site.
These test flights represent significant engineering achievement, as they involve testing the large, complex plumbing systems for Starship’s fuel tanks and rocket engine, as well as pushing the Raptor engine’s thrust vector control system in flight.
Now that SpaceX has made two relatively short jumps, the company’s engineers have demonstrated the vehicle’s basic control. The time may have come to go higher. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said the company could try several intermediate hops before going ahead with a 20km test flight.
Starting a factory
These test flights follow an intensive period of development work. After spending more than half a year scaling up its factory operations in South Texas — the company builds spaceships just about two miles from its launch pads at Boca Chica Beach — SpaceX seems to have found its groove as it adopts an iterative design philosophy. follows.
SpaceX jumped its smaller prototype, Starhopper, to about 20 meters for the first time in July 2019. This was the Raptor engine’s first free flight. Then, in August of last year, the stubby prototype flew to a height of about 150 meters and made another successful landing.
At the time, it was expected that SpaceX would quickly evolve into building and flying full Starship prototypes. But after rushing to build the first such prototype in September 2019, SpaceX founder Elon Musk decided he needed to optimize production of the vehicles first. In February, he told Ars that he wanted to build a production line for Starships because he wants to build many to establish Mars. So he focused on building a factory under tents in South Texas.
“Manufacturing is at least 1,000 percent more difficult than making something out of it,” he said. “At least 1,000 percent harder.”
Then, this spring, SpaceX began producing a succession of tanks. Most burst during pressure tests before SpaceX could even attach a motor. These were essential learning steps as engineers devised the optimal process to create thin yet durable pressurized tanks. Finally, the company flew SN5 in early July and then SN6 on Thursday.
Now SpaceX has its South Texas plant up and running, and Musk and his engineering team seem to be getting to grips with flying the vehicle. So what comes next? SN5 and SN6 may or may not fly again. The company has designed and built a pressurized fuel tank from a new steel alloy, and this will likely be tested to failure.
Then it’s probably time to move on to a full-sized starship with the large nose cone and wings. This version, SN8, is perhaps the prototype that will eventually fly up to 20km. Finally, NASASpaceflight.com reports that SN9 is undergoing preliminary construction and parts for SN10 have arrived at its South Texas plant. Each new version will contain lessons learned from previous iterations.
In short, while a spaceship took a small step before a rocket on Thursday, it promised big leaps in the near future.
List image by Trevor Mahlmann