SpaceX has really made progress lately! During the summer of 2020 and well into the fall, the company had a number of successes building and testing its Starship prototypes. This included several cryogenic stress tests, static fire tests, test tank pressure tests, and even two 150m hop tests. And now it looks like SpaceX could do its first high-altitude flight test tomorrow!
In this test, the first Starship prototype with three Raptor engines (SN8) flies to an altitude of 15 km before safely returning home. The engineering teams will also use this test to validate the spacecraft's maneuvering fins and perform a "belly-flop" maneuver that shows how the spacecraft's aerodynamic surfaces make it possible to make controlled landings on bodies with an atmosphere.
The possibility that this test could take place this week, Elon Musk hovered over Twitter over the weekend. The message came in response to a comment by NASASpaceFlight.com's Michael Baylor who reported the news of an alert to residents of Boca Chica. These will be issued in advance (along with notices of road closures) in the event of a static fire or flight tests at the SpaceX launch site in South Texas.
Just a static fire tomorrow. Flight no earlier than Wednesday.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 29, 2020
The warning, the full text of which you can read here, stated:
“SpaceX will conduct spaceflight activities on November 30, 2020 from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm. Approximately 10 minutes before the activity, a police siren will sound in the village of Boca Chica. During this period there can be more than one instance where you hear a siren notification. "
The notice also warned that a malfunction during the test could lead to a possible "overpressure event" that would break the window. For this reason, it was recommended, but not required, that residents and their pets evacuate their homes in the village for the duration of the activity, or at least wait outside as soon as they heard the police siren, and stay there until the all-clear.
Baylor also said flight restrictions are still pending, which would suggest the flight test (expected earlier this week) has received the green light. In response, Musk tweeted that only a static fire would take place yesterday (Nov. 30) and that the long-awaited flight test would not take place until tomorrow (Dec. 2) at the earliest.
This coincides with a public notice for Cameron County, which stated a series of temporary closures for State Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach. This includes a closure with a primary date of November 30th (7:00 am to 6:00 pm) with secondary dates running from December 1st to December 2nd (8:00 am to 5:00 pm). Another was planned for December 3rd (primary school) with December 4th and 5th (all from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.).
A third and final closure is scheduled for and again from December 7th to 9th, with the primary (December 7th) running from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm and the secondary dates from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. According to Cameron County Judge Eddie Travino Jr., the closings were "in connection with space activities now or in the future".
The SN8 was officially approved for preparations to begin following its last successful static fire test last week (Tuesday, November 24). This was the fourth static fire test of the SN8 and the second test with three Raptor engines. The first three-engine test took place in late October, followed by the final installation of the nose cone and flaps of the SN8.
After reaching that final milestone, Musk announced on Twitter that a flight test would take place this week.
“Good spaceship SN8 static fire! The goal is the next flight at 15 km altitude in the next week. The aim is to test 3 engine steps, body flaps, transition from main to collection tanks and landing flap. "
If everything goes according to plan, the SN8 will shut down its engines as soon as it falls off. At this point, the spaceship rotates its hull toward the ground and glides towards its landing site, relying solely on its fins to control its descent. The ground teams re-ignite the engine in the last few seconds and swing the rear section back for a soft landing.
According to previous statements, Musk hopes to be able to perform a suborbital flight sometime next year. This would cause a spaceship with six Raptor engines (three optimized for thrust at sea level and three optimized for the vacuum of space) to fly to an altitude of 200 km. In the meantime, work continues on the Super Heavy Booster element of the launch system, which will have no fewer than 28 Raptor engines.
As always, things never seem to go exactly on schedule. But they happen and are getting closer and closer to the climax. In a few years' time, the spaceship may be going into orbit regularly, flying passengers from one continent to another, bringing payloads and people to the moon, and maybe even establishing a colony on Mars.
Further reading: Teslarati