For years, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has talked about what he will do once his company’s super heavy-lift launch system is finally ready to go! While tidbits of information were shared between 2011 and 2015, it was not until September of 2017 that Musk began to share detailed plans for this system. By 2018, Musk announced that work on the Starship and Super-Heavy (formerly known as the BFR) was underway.
In the past year, progress on the Starship has advanced by leaps and bounds (despite a few explosions). This reached a high point on Dec. 9th, 2020, when the SN8 prototype conducted a hop test where it reached an altitude of 12.5 km (7.8 mi) and did a “belly-flop” on the way down. According to recent indications, the SN9 may be making a hop test by the end of this week!
As with previous tests, early indications included Cameron County announcing road closures for State Highway 4 and around Boca Chica Beach for Monday, Jan. 4th to Wednesday, Jan. 6th. This coincided with news that the ground crews at the South Texas Launch Facility (near the village of Boca Chica) would be conducting a static fire test with the SN9 prototype on Wednesday, Jan. 6th.
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This test happened earlier today at 04:07:13 P.M. CST (02:07:13 P.M. PST; 05:07:13 P.M. EST), which a short-duration fire that lasted only a second before it was aborted. Even so, no damage was done and the crews will be attempting another static fire, followed by an eventual hop test (which could happen later this week). This is based on recent Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) that were issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The NOTAMs were posted on Tuesday, Jan. 5th, advising air traffic to avoid the airspace around Jacksonville, Texas, from Friday, Jan. 8th to Sunday, Jan. 10th. This is in keeping with SpaceX’s iterative and rapid-prototyping approach, where the lessons learned from the last test are quickly being parlayed into the next one less than a month later.
During the previous hop test with the SN8, both the ascent and the belly-flop maneuver were carried out without a hitch. This latter test involved shutting off the engine once the SN8 was near its maximum altitude, then turning the spacecraft sideways so it could test its maneuvering fins and aerodynamic surfaces (which will come into play during atmospheric re-entry).
Unfortunately, a glitch occurred after the SN8 brought its tail back around and reignited one of its engines. Due to a problem with the fuel header tank, the single Raptor did not have enough fuel pressure. As a result, the SN8 did not shed enough speed before landing and exploded on the launchpad. However, Musk tweeted his approval with the overall test and vowed that the data from it would prevent future accidents.
Luckily, the ground crews were able to quickly refurbish the landing pad, which was left a little scorched and debris-strewn! Engineering teams were also able to replace two damaged aerodynamic surfaces on the SN9, which resulted from the SN9 falling over in the High Bay on Dec. 13th. In the meantime, the SN10 has been stacked and integrated inside the High Bay and will be ready to roll out as soon as the SN9 is ready for its hop test.
The SN11 and SN12 are also being assembled inside the facility’s Mid Bay, with the SN11 almost finished and just in need of its nosecone. From all this, it’s safe to say that SpaceX has accelerated their rapid-prototyping and testing process. With any luck, they just might be ready to conduct the first orbital flight test before 2021 is over!
Further Reading: NASASpaceFlight