On Wednesday in South Texas, SpaceX launched its latest prototype spacecraft not once or twice. Rather, engineers and technicians powered and tested their prototype SN9 and Raptor rocket engines three times in less than four hours.
After the first of three tests, the founder and chief engineer of SpaceX said on Twitter, “Today at SpaceX it’s all about practicing Starship engine starts. The ship is held by huge pins while the engines are fired.” After the third test, Musk confirmed that all three tests were carried out without major problems.
Performing three tests like this in quick succession is a notable achievement, and it indicates the maturation of spacecraft hardware, ground systems, and procedures for the SpaceX Starship launch program. Musk said the goal was to reach a point where one could “go up and go” on Mars. Such a capacity remains for years in the future, if ever it is realized. But the company appears to be moving towards a robust launch system.
Assuming Wednesday’s engine test data is favorable, the next step for SN9 is likely to go flying. The vehicle is already on its launch stand, and Musk and his engineers will now perform a “readiness” exam before what is expected to be another test flight at around 12.5 km, similar to the flight performed by the SN8 vehicle. in December. The goal will be to land successfully, after SN8 meets a fiery end at the landing site after an otherwise near perfect flight.
SpaceX received Federal Aviation Administration approval to launch its SN9 vehicle Thursday, Friday or Saturday from its facility near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. They may be able to turn SN9 around for an attempted theft as early as Thursday. However, there are concerns about the upper winds, which appear to be hostile until at least Saturday.
Sources have suggested that SpaceX is eager to continue flying with SN9, as it has almost completed assembly of Starship’s next prototype, SN10, at its nearby high-rise facilities. The company is rushing to have this vehicle flown perhaps as early as the end of January, as it has several other prototypes in various states of construction.
The short term goal is to demonstrate an orbital flight capability for Starship. To do this, the company must first build and test the Super Heavy rocket, which will serve as Starship’s first step. This spectacular test will see a spacecraft launched into orbit, then determine if it can return safely to Earth using a combination of heat shield tiles on its side facing the atmosphere, and a complex set of maneuvers to reduce the speed and finally make a landing.
In an interview published earlier this month, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell told Ars that she thinks this orbital flight test is more likely than not to happen. in 2021.