Starship SN9’s time to shine – test series targets a New Year’s resolution

Starship SN9 is currently tracking an early New Years’ launch, providing the upcoming test series clears the path for what will be a similar flight to SN8, albeit aiming for a “softer” landing.

With the vehicle on the launch mount, the first test will involve cryoproofing as early as Monday, ahead of a three engine Static Fire test. Should the trio of Raptors – and their silver ringed host – perform as expected, a 12.5 KM test flight could come as soon as the first or second week of January.

Starship SN9 has been undergoing integration ops on the launch mount over the Christmas holiday, setting the stage for what will be a streamlined pre-launch test series when compared to that undertaken by SN8.

The first test will involve filling the vehicle with nitrogen, usually in a two-step fashion. Initially, the vehicle will be filled with gaseous nitrogen – called the ambient test, ahead of being loaded with super-cold liquid nitrogen (LN2) for the cryo test.

This test sequence is expected early in the coming week, with preparations for testing already ongoing on Monday morning.

Providing all goes to plan with the proofing test, SN9 will be prepared for what is currently expected to be one Static Fire test involving all three Raptors. This is an expedited test schedule compared to SN8, which underwent several Static Fire tests ahead of launch.

Two of SN9’s Raptors were installed on the vehicle inside the High Bay. Once the vehicle had made it to the pad, a third engine – SN49 – was installed, completing the trio.

Only after these tests have been completed will a launch date become known, likely via a notice to local air and sea traffic. This, in turn, will be pending acceptable weather conditions and vehicle preparedness going into prop loading tasks.

Based on the best-case scenario test flow, the launch could realistically occur within January’s first two weeks.

The chance SN9 could actually complete a successful landing has been boosted by SN8’s accomplishments right up to the landing burn, along with engineering grasp on why it suffered from issues, resulting in the hard touchdown.

The issue was related to the fuel (CH4) Header Tank losing pressure during the test’s final seconds. That was soon identified and rectified as a corrective action for SN9. Elon Musk claimed the fix was “minor” on Twitter.

Despite SN8’s stunning success in proving several first-time test flight objectives, SN9 going one better by sticking the landing still requires a trouble-free launch and return, with the always-present potential of an abrupt ending being in play.

In part, this is one of the reasons SpaceX has several Starships lined up, ready to take on the test flight objectives, should predecessors end their lives in a fireball.

SpaceX Boca Chica’s impressive production cadence has resulted in Starship SN10 now being in the High Bay, taking up the space vacated by SN9. SN10’s nosecone is already assembled and is sporting its aero surfaces  – allowing for mating operations to take place in the High Bay in a matter of days.

Although Elon Musk has hinted at the potential of two Starships at the launch site – on Pad A and Pad B – at the same time, it’s unlikely that dual ops event will take place for SN9 and SN10.

It can be assumed that additional landing confidence would likely be required to avoid taking out two Starships during a hard landing. However, it is notable that SN8 was over the landing pad in its final seconds.

SN10 and SN11 hold some potential for the dual pad ops, given SN11 is about to complete stacking in the Mid Bay.  The aft section was moved into place on Sunday, ahead of being raised and mated with the rest of the stack in the coming days.

That, in turn, will clear space in the Mid Bay for the stacking of SN12 sections.

Starships’ impressive conveyer belt is self-evident when considering sections assigned through to at least Starship SN17 are in existence, as spotted by Mary (@bocachicagal) and outlined by Brendan’s overview graphic.

@brendan2908 latest round up on the sections of Starship and Super Heavy.

Also, the first Super Heavy prototype – BN1 – has numerous sections ready for stacking.

RGV Aerial Photography managed to snatch a view inside the High Bay, showing the sections that have already been assembled, while the remaining sections are located outside one of the “Big Tents” in the production area.

Likely, the sight of new beams being hoisted into the High Bay roof area is related to a gantry crane that will be utilized to complete the stacking of Super Heavy boosters inside the structure.

A new crane involved with High Bay operations – via Mary (@bocachicagal)

Elon Musk also provided a quick update on the expected schedule for the BN1 Super Heavy, claiming the hop will take place in “a few months.”

Hop remains the operative word for BN1’s test, with no update to Elon’s previous note that the Super Heavy booster will initially conduct a 150-meter hop, akin to Starship SN5 and SN6. At the time of that claim, Elon added that the booster would fly with two Raptors – which is all that would be required for the short hop.

Using fewer Raptors during testing is desirable due to the potential of test failures. While SpaceX’s test program is built to withstand failures without major impacts to its cadence, the Raptors are the most expensive part of the vehicle. Losing as few of them as possible is going to be a key requirement.

Regardless, SpaceX is now turning over numerous Raptors to cope with its test schedule.

Although the production cadence at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California, is unknown, the regular turnaround of new Raptors at the test center in McGregor, Texas, is impressive.

Aerial photo from NSF member Gary Blair for NSF/L2

During Gary Blair’s latest aerial commute past the facility (L2 McGregor), he photographed three Raptors being tested on the horizontal (two) and vertical (one) test stands.

As has been seen previously, one of the Raptors sports what appears to be a green nozzle. It’s assumed this is a protective coating for the nozzle during a specific phase of testing.

Most photos via Mary (@bocachicagal)

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