CEO Elon Musk says SpaceX’s first high-altitude Starship prototype – made entirely from a new steel alloy – will be fully assembled in “about a week”.
On August 4th, SpaceX successfully hopped a full-fledged Starship prototype (serial number 5 or SN5) for the first time and reached the same 150 m high apogee star hopper that had risen just under a year earlier. On September 3, just 30 days later, the Starship SN6 – a completely different full-size prototype with a different Raptor engine – completed an identical 150-meter jump, although Musk noted that it was “a much smoother and faster operation.”
Musk’s suggestion that “several” short jumps were being made strongly implied that SN5, SN6, or both ships would fly a second time. Now, backed by a NASASpaceflight.com report, Musk seems to be suggesting that the first high altitude spacecraft (SN8) is next on the agenda.
According to NASASpaceflight, SpaceX is already working on the first high-altitude launch of Starship SN8 in October. However, several critical milestones stand in the way of this ambitious test flight. The unmentioned Starship SN7.1 test tank may still be hours away from a cryogenic stress test that is vital to the future of the Starship SN8 and several of its successors. A successful SN7.1 stress test made from a steel alloy that is slightly more ductile and pliable at cryogenic temperatures would open the door to SN8 – the first full-size prototype made from the same new alloy – and begin testing immediately afterwards.
However, as with all testing, failure is a strong possibility and would likely require further analysis of the new steel alloy and some redesign for several affected Starship components. In this case, Starship SN8 would likely serve as a test tank rather than becoming the first high-altitude flight item. The tests of SN7.1 are to begin on September 14th at 9:00 p.m. (UTC-5) (NET) at the earliest and continue until September 23rd.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is working around the clock to equip the SN8 spacecraft and prepare the ship for the installation of a bow cone section and four aerodynamic control surfaces called flaps. Unlike the Starship Mk1, which was temporarily outfitted with flaps and a nose cone as a full-size model rather than a flight item, there’s a very real chance that Starship SN8 will actually do a flight test with the nose and flaps installed.
Unlike the Space Shuttle or other proposed spacecraft, SpaceX’s current spacecraft design incorporates flaps to provide aerodynamic stability as it falls belly first through the atmosphere, much like a skydiver using arms and legs to to steer through the air.
If Musk’s schedule is correct, the Starship SN8 could be fully equipped with a nose cone and flaps and ready to roll onto the launch pad for testing by next week. Ahead of the first 20 km hop-and-skydiving-style landing attempt, Musk says SpaceX will subject the SN8 to a static fire test (possibly the first with three Raptor engines). If it survives, the missile will be carefully inspected before a second static fire test is performed. If this second test is successful, the SN8 will be definitively cleared for Starship’s first attempt at take-off and landing at high altitude.
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