Booster 9 has arrived at the Orbital Launch Site ahead of a Static Fire test, which will also be used to validate repairs and upgrades of Starship’s launch pad. That rollout is a key milestone in the campaign ahead of the second flight of the world’s most powerful rocket.
SpaceX has also started the test campaign for Starship’s third flight while upgrades at Starbase’s production site continue forward in full swing.
Launchpad Upgrades Installed and Tested
In the last few weeks, SpaceX has made fast progress in installing the water-cooled steel plate system that will be used starting on the next flight of Starship.
While the main central plate had been installed a few weeks ago, the manifolds that supply water to the system were installed shortly after. This whole system involves a six-sided central plate with three sides connected to these manifolds and the other three closed-off.
These three manifolds are located on the south and west sides of the central plate under the orbital launch mount (OLM). Right after these were installed, pipes were also laid down to connect them to the ground storage tanks located on the other side of the Starship launch tower.
There are two main water pipes that lead to the three manifolds. One of them splits in two near the OLM and supplies water to two of the manifolds whereas the other pipe supplies water to the remainder.
Pad crews have been working non-stop on this system welding and grinding and adjusting all of the hardware for a proper installation of the system.
During the last week, almost all of the repaired and upgraded launchpad systems were tested. One of the first tests occurred on July 13 with the purge of the pressure and water pipes that are part of the new water ground tanks. The day after, on July 14, there were up to seven tests of the OLM Raptor quick disconnects (RQDs) that help start the outer 20 engines on Super Heavy.
This was followed the day after by even more testing but this time of the orbital tank farm. This testing seemed to be unsuccessful with crews aborting the test a few hours afterward.
The test that certainly attracted the most interest came on July 17 with the first water flowing through the pipes and up to the steel plate under the OLM. This started first at low pressure, just as a small trickle of water accumulated and poured over the sides of the plate.
After a gradual increase in pressure, the test of this system culminated in a burst of water sprayed upwards under the OLM. This is believed to have only been a partial test, perhaps only using one of the three manifolds of the system and at lower pressure.
It could be very likely that a full flow and full-scale test may not be performed until it is needed for a static fire test which won’t come until after Booster 9 rolls out to the launch site.
Another series of launch pad tests occurred on the evening of July 18 with heavy venting observed coming from the orbital tank farm. Ground cryogenic conduits were purged as well as evidenced by the presence of the now famous OLM and launch tower vents related to this process.
Even the launchpad FireX system was tested during this campaign, being activated for several seconds and proving that it is still in good shape ahead of the upcoming Booster 9 static fire test campaign.
Booster 9’s Next Moves
Booster 9’s static fire test campaign could be starting as soon as next week. The vehicle was moved from the Mega Bay to Starbase’s “Rocket Garden” in the very early morning of July 18.
Say hello to the upgrades! Booster 9 is looking great (but still without a hotstaging ring).
Epic close-up view from Jack (@thejackbeyer)
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) July 20, 2023
The vehicle then rolled down Highway 4 on Thursday, providing a closer look at the upgrades that include a set of cylindrical metal tanks installed in the locations where the smaller set of aerodynamic chines used to be located on the vehicle. These have now been covered making now all of the chines on Booster 9 look the same size.
It is unclear what is the nature of these tanks, but they could be related to anything from extra storage of consumables for the booster to storage of purging gas for the engine bay in order to avoid fires – something Elon had hinted at on a recent Twitter Spaces.
With Booster 9 now on the pad, SpaceX is hoping for a full engine static fire test to be conducted before the end of the month. This would set the stage for the return of a Starship full stack in early August and followed by a launch by the middle of that month.
However, this will only be possible if weather, launch pad, and vehicle hardware cooperate. On top of this, SpaceX needs to be cleared for flight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This will include recertifying Starship’s flight termination system (FTS) and modifying the rocket’s launch license to include this second flight and any other potential modifications to the flight profile if they were needed.
After its rollout, Booster 9 was seen sporting its new set of FTS charges which are now larger in number. There are at least two more charges at the bottom of the liquid methane tank about two rings above the common dome weld line – where the original FTS charges are still located.
These additional charges are in order to ensure that Booster 9 loses complete structural integrity in the event that this system is needed and activated during flight, effectively terminating its flight.
If SpaceX were to achieve a second launch of Starship in August, the company may perform another two launches of its monster rocket in what remains of the year. Sources indicate that SpaceX may be targeting somewhere from eight to ten launches of Starship in 2024 which would include activation of its Florida launchpad at Launch Complex 39A, Starlink test flights, and on-orbit refilling tests.
New S24.2 Test Article and Booster 10 Test Campaign Starts
While Starbase’s launchpad is abuzz, its production site is no less active. The new Mega Bay building has seen its fourth level completed with just one level left until the completion of its main structure. A roof section may be added as well for more office space for the production site.
A new test article has been under construction within the High Bay in the last few weeks as well. This test article, dubbed S24.2 on its label, consists of a ship payload bay section with a single reinforced ring on top.
This ring has an elliptical dome attached to it and several pipes that stick out from the sides. This contraption appears to be a part of the test configuration for structural testing of this ship’s payload bay section.
The nosecone structural test stand is currently being modified at SpaceX’s Massey test site to support this structural testing. This will be key for the company to certify this structure and system before using it to deploy Starlink satellites.
At Massey also resides Booster 10 which has started its cryogenic proof test campaign. This booster will likely undergo multiple tests of this nature over the next days and weeks and head back to the production site where it’ll receive its engines.
Booster 10 is likely going to be one of the two vehicles slated to fly on the third integrated test flight of Starship. Its possible pair, Ship 28, has been receiving heat shield tiles over the last few weeks and it may soon be ready to begin thrust simulator testing.
A new mobile thrust simulator test stand for ships has been built for this task over the last weeks at Massey and it has rolled out to the production site, likely indicating that a ship there will receive that treatment.
This article will be updated during the continuing work this week.
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(Lead Image: Booster 9 rolling out to the launch pad at Starbase. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF/L2)