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SpaceX hot fire tests its Starship vehicle three times in four hours

Picture of Starship on the launch pad.
Enlarge / The sun is shining around the lower part of Starship SN8 on December 9, 2020.

Trevor Mahlmann

On Wednesday in South Texas, SpaceX did not fire its latest Starship prototype once or twice. Rather, engineers and technicians fired and tested their SN9 prototype and its Raptor rocket engines three times in less than four hours.

After the first of three tests, SpaceX founder and chief engineer said on Twitter: “Today at SpaceX, it̵

7;s all about practicing Starship engine start. The ship is held down by massive pins while engines are fired.” After the third test, Musk confirmed that all three tests were completed without a major problem.

Performing three tests like this in quick succession is a remarkable achievement, pointing to the maturation of spacecraft hardware, ground systems, and procedures for SpaceX’s launch of the Starship program. Musk said the goal is to reach a point where one could “jump in and go” to Mars. Such an ability remains years into the future, if ever realized. But the company seems to be making progress toward a robust launch system.

Assuming data from Wednesday’s engine test is favorable, the next step for the SN9 is likely to go and fly. The vehicle is already at its launch stand, and Musk and his engineers will now conduct a “readiness” evaluation in advance of what is expected to be another test flight to approx. 12.5 km, corresponding to the flight performed by the SN8 vehicle in December. The goal will be to land successfully after SN8 met a burning end at the landing site after an otherwise almost perfect flight.

SpaceX has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch its SN9 vehicle Thursday, Friday or Saturday from its facility near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. It is possible that they will be able to turn SN9 into a flight test as soon as Thursday. However, there are concerns about winds at the top level, which appear to be hostile until at least Saturday.

Sources suggested that SpaceX is eager to continue flying the SN9 as it has almost completed the assembly of the next Starship prototype, the SN10, at its nearby High Bay facilities. The company is pushing ahead to fly this vehicle perhaps right at the end of January as it has several other prototypes in different design modes.

The short-term goal is to demonstrate an orbital flying ability for Starship. To do this, the company must first build and test the Super Heavy rocket, which will serve as Starship’s first phase. This dramatic test will see a starship launch into orbit and then determine if it can safely return to Earth using a combination of heat shield tiles on its atmospheric side and a complex set of maneuvers to soften speed and ultimately make a controlled landing.

In an interview released earlier this month, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell told Ars that she thought it was more likely than not that this orbital flight test would take place in 2021.

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