SpaceX CEO Elon Musk presented the latest update on the Starship/Super Heavy program on Saturday from the company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The event was held in front of the first fully assembled Starship prototype, which will be performing its maiden test flight in the coming weeks. During the presentation, Musk provided an overview of the current design and provided a roadmap for future developments.
Saturday’s event was held on the 11-year anniversary of SpaceX’s first successful launch into orbit. That mission used a Falcon 1 vehicle which has since been retired in favor of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. In total, SpaceX has successfully launched 77 additional missions since then – along with adding propulsive landing capabilities to their vehicles.
SpaceX aims to continue to build upon their rapid progress over the past decade with the Super Heavy and Starship program.
The Super Heavy and Starship vehicles are being designed to have a large enough payload capacity to be able to send crews and cargo to the surface of the Moon and Mars while still being fully reusable.
Super Heavy refers to the first stage of the launch system which helps to lift the Starship spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere. Then, the Super Heavy booster will propulsively land either on a landing zone near the launch site or downrange on an ocean platform.
Meanwhile, the Starship spacecraft will continue on to orbit and deliver the cargo to its destination. During some missions such as those to the surface of Mars, the vehicle may be refueled by other Starship vehicles along the way.
Upon arrival, the reusable spacecraft will be capable of landing propulsively on the surface of the Moon and other planets. Starship also features fins which help the vehicle navigate through the atmospheres of planets such as the Earth and Mars.
Starship’s aero surfaces have changed numerous times over the years – with last year’s design featuring a three fin configuration that also acted as the landing legs.
The engineers have since settled with a version that features two large fins on the aft of the Starship and two smaller fins on the nosecone. The four fins will need to make very fast adjustments during reentry, and thus must be capable of articulating very quickly.
Musk showed off an animation of a Starship landing at Saturday’s event.
Part 2 – Crazy! pic.twitter.com/u7yGKGdeK4
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) September 29, 2019
To make that happen, SpaceX is capitalizing on technology from Musk’s electric car company, Tesla. Starship’s fins will be powered by the same motors found in a Teslas along with several of the car’s battery packs, stated Musk in a pre-event Tweet earlier this week.
SpaceX will soon begin performing high altitude test flights of Starship to practice the reentry maneuvers. These flights will be utilizing two prototype vehicles called Mk1 and Mk2.
Both of the launch sites have been undergoing modifications in recent weeks to prepare for the flights.
The first test flight will see the Starship Mk1 fly to 20 kilometers from Boca Chica and then land on a landing zone adjacent to the launch pad. This test flight is approximately one to two months away, said Musk at Saturday’s event.
From there, Musk stated that the next flight after that might be all the way to orbit with a Super Heavy booster. This could utilize the Mk3 vehicle, which will be built in Boca Chica and will begin construction in about a month.
He did not elaborate on when the Mk2 vehicle could first fly.
The upcoming test flights will also be the most demanding test yet for the Raptor engines which will power both Super Heavy and Starship.
SpaceX has currently produced 12 full-scale prototypes of the methane fueled engines. Like all test campaigns, there have been setbacks along the way, but steady progress continues to be made.
SpaceX recently completed a second test bay at their test facility in McGregor, Texas. This allows for two engines to be tested in quick succession as the production rates of the engines ramp up.
Current plans call for the Super Heavy vehicle to have 37 sea-level optimized Raptor engines – a number that has fluctuated over the years.
Of the 37 engines, only the seven engines are capable of gimbaling.
Super Heavy’s engines will be surrounded by six landing legs. While the legs are enclosed in a fin-like structure, they do not provide control during landing. Instead, Super Heavy will navigate utilizing its grid fins, reaction control thrusters, and engines.
Starship will feature three sea-level engines and three vacuum optimized engines. According to Musk, the sea-level engines will be used for landing a high range of gimbal. Meanwhile, the vacuum optimized engines will have their nozzles fixed to the base of the Starship vehicle for stability.
The vacuum Raptors will not need to gimbal, as the sea-level optimized engines can still be used in a vacuum to steer the vehicle – albeit for slightly less performance.
Three large storage containers are also found at the base of the spacecraft and fill the extra space adjacent to the vacuum optimized engines.
As far as production, Musk stated that the goal is to have two Starships constructed at the Florida and Texas-based facilities before working on the first Super Heavy vehicles.
Raptor is a full-flow, staged combustion rocket engine powered by cryogenic methane and liquid oxygen pic.twitter.com/7JCvK4Gm6b
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 29, 2019
Producing the Raptor engines is currently the biggest constraint for mass-producing the vehicles.
The current production rate is one every eight to ten days – with a target of getting to a rate of a Raptor a day by the first quarter of 2020.
However, the reusability of the Super Heavy and Starship vehicles will greatly help to expedite the testing program, as they will not have to build a new rocket each time, according to Musk.
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