March 18th, 2019
Following several months of construction and outfitting at SpaceX’s still-under-construction South Texas launch facility near Brownsville, the prototype for the company’s Starship, which is the upper stage of its next-generation super-heavy-lift vehicle called Starship Super Heavy, looks to be ready for its first firing and short test hops, likely only to be several feet.
Recently, it was reported that tanking tests were being performed with cryogenic methane and oxygen being loaded into the stainless steel structure. Then on March 15, 2019, a notice to Boca Chica Village residents went out stating that as soon as this week SpaceX would be establishing a “safety zone perimeter” in coordination with local law enforcement, possibly indicating that a test firing is coming soon.
The original nose cone fell over in high winds several months ago and was destroyed. It appears that new stainless steel construction at the site is focused on an orbital prototype that will succeed the Starship Hopper.
Interestingly, Musk also tweeted a video of sample Starship heat shield tiles being tested.
Testing Starship heatshield hex tiles pic.twitter.com/PycE9VthxQ
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 17, 2019
Part of the reason why SpaceX opted to go with stainless steel for the construction of Starship was its high heat tolerance and strength at cryogenic temperatures. Musk has said the leeward side of the spacecraft during re-entry would not need any shielding, while the windward side would be actively cooled, rather than ablative.
Musk said also said transpiration cooling—which would involve the spacecraft “sweating” small amounts of methane through tiny pores to create a thin vapor blanket—would be added where engineers see higher heating on the ship.
The full Starship Super Heavy rocket is planned to be 387 feet (118 meters) tall and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. Starship is the upper stage/spaceship portion of the vehicle and is expected to be about 180 feet (55 meters) tall in its final orbital form.
Super Heavy is the booster stage and expected to be powered by 31 Raptor engines that consume liquid methane and oxygen to produce nearly 14 million pounds (62,000 kilonewtons) of thrust.
Meanwhile, Starship in its final form is designed to have seven Raptor engines to produce just over 3 million pounds (14,000 kilonewtons) of thrust.
The fully reusable rocket system is expected to be able to place more than 100 metric tons into low-Earth orbit. With on-orbit refueling, Starship would be able to send that same 100 metric tons to either the Moon or Mars.
While it is an ambitions timeline, Musk has stated he believes the first orbital test flights could come as early as 2020.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity. He met with members of the SpaceFlight Insider team during the flight of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket with the MUOS-4 satellite. Richardson joined our team shortly thereafter. His passion for space ignited when he watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch into space Oct. 29, 1998. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized his true calling was communicating to others about space. Since joining SpaceFlight Insider in 2015, Richardson has worked to increase the quality of our content, eventually becoming our managing editor. @TheSpaceWriter