CEO Elon Musk says SpaceX’s first high-altitude Starship prototype – built entirely of a new steel alloy – will be fully assembled “in about a week” from now on.
On August 4, SpaceX successfully hopped a full-scale Starship prototype (serial number 5 or SN5) for the first time, reaching the same 150m (~ 500ft) apogee Starhopper rose to just shyly a year earlier. On September 3, just 30 days later, the Starship SN6 – a completely different full-scale prototype with a different Raptor engine – completed an identical 150m jump, though Musk noted it was “a much smoother and faster operation.”
Musk’s indication that “more” short hops were to be performed strongly suggested that SN5, SN6, or both ships would fly a second time. Now, however, it appears that Musk – backed by a NASASpaceflight.com report – suggests that the first Starship (SN8) at high altitude is next on the dock.
According to NASASpaceflight, SpaceX is now working towards the first launch of Starship SN8 at high altitude already in October. Before the ambitious test flight, however, there are several critical milestones in the way. Not to mention, the Starship test tank SN7.1 may be hours away from launching a cryogenic stress test that is crucial to the future of the Starship SN8 and several of its successors. Built from a steel alloy that is somewhat more ductile and flexible at cryogenic temperatures, a successful SN7.1 stress test would open the door for SN8 – the first full-scale prototype built from the same new alloy – to begin testing immediately then.
As with all tests, however, failure is a strong possibility and will likely require more analysis of the new steel alloy and some level of redesign for several affected Starship components. In that case, the Starship SN8 will likely serve as a test tank instead of becoming the first high-altitude flight article. SN7.1’s trials are set to begin no earlier than (NET) 9 pm CDT (UTC-5) on 14 September and could continue all the way up to 23 September.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is working around the clock to equip the Starship SN8 and prepare the ship for the installation of a nosebone section and four aerodynamic control surfaces known as flaps. Unlike the Starship Mk1, which was temporarily equipped with flaps and a nose cone more like a full-size mockup than an aircraft article, there is a very real chance that the Starship SN8 will actually perform a flight test with the nose and flaps installed.
Unlike the space shuttle or other proposed spacecraft, SpaceX’s current Starship design includes flaps to ensure aerodynamic stability while freely dropping the belly first through the atmosphere, like a skydiver using arms and legs to steer through the air.
If Musk’s schedule is accurate, the Starship SN8 could be fully equipped with a nose cone and flaps and ready to roll to the launch pad for testing as early as next week. Prior to the first 20 km (~ 12.5 mi) jump and skydiver landing attempts, Musk says SpaceX will put the SN8 through a static fire test (possibly the first with three Raptor engines). If it survives, the rocket will be carefully inspected before performing another static fire test. If the second test is successful, the SN8 will finally be cleared for Starship’s first high-altitude take-off and landing attempt.
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