SpaceX’s Super Heavy Booster 9 prototype has completed its pre-launch static fire test. This follows roughly two weeks after its first static fire attempt that ended prematurely at only half the expected duration. Work continues in parallel at Starbase to prepare Ship 25 for flight, which could occur in the next week or two, pending regulatory approval.
Future vehicles for Starship flights deep into next year are also in production. SpaceX is also in the midst of a major upgrade to its Starship production factory that will change the future look of the South Texas facility.
Booster 9, Ship 25, and launch site prepare for next Starship flight
Booster 9 required a pre-launch static fire test after the first was cut short during an attempt on Aug. 6. During this static fire attempt four of the booster’s 33 engines shut down prematurely, violating test commit criteria, prompting a test abort and shutdown of all 29 remaining engines.
It is unclear yet what caused these engines to shut down prematurely, but indications point to potential issues with ground support equipment, the vehicle, or perhaps both. This is further evidenced by the several tests of the Raptor quick disconnect (QD) umbilicals on the orbital launch mount (OLM) at Starbase in the days after the test.
These umbilicals inject high-pressure helium to spin up the pumps on the outer 20 Raptor engines, all while also providing high-pressure gaseous methane and gaseous oxygen needed for the preburner torch igniters. If one of these were to fail, then the Raptor engine they’re attached to would not start up properly and would likely shut down.
After Booster 9’s rollback to the Mega Bay, the vehicle has undergone further work to prepare it for flight. This included the addition of its hot staging ring and the closeout of several of its systems. Much of this work consisted on minor additions for flight such as adding aerocovers for the socket in which the launch tower stabilizer arms engage for booster lifts.
Intense nighttime waterworks show coming from SpaceX's OLM water deluge test. @NASASpaceflight
— Sean Doherty (@SeanKD_Photos) August 19, 2023
Questions remained about whether the launch pad flame deflector system and the nearby concrete had held up Booster 9’s static fire test. SpaceX tested this flame deflector system at the pad on Aug. 18, indicating that the system was still functional and no major issues were discernible during the test.
Workers were seen during the days and weeks after the static fire test working on the concrete surrounding the flame deflector plate underneath the OLM, perhaps as a result of small issues with it during the static fire. Despite this, aerial shots provided by NSF’s Jack Beyer show the concrete under the OLM is now in great condition and should be ready for Booster 9’s testing.
Booster 9’s rollout had been delayed over the last few days due to various technical and weather-related issues. Originally scheduled for Saturday, the booster still sat inside of the Mega Bay building for a few more days for final checks. This rollout was then faced with the impending arrival of Tropical Storm Harold which hadn’t developed at the time but was predicted to hit South Texas by Aug. 22.
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) August 22, 2023
Despite the initial forecast, the storm eventually was proven to be less powerful than predicted. Its center also passed far enough north to allow favorable conditions for rollout during the afternoon on Aug. 22. Booster 9 was quickly lifted into place on the OLM soon after rollout, probably pointing to SpaceX’s desire to re-test this vehicle as soon as possible.
Ship 25 continues to be prepared for flight at the Rocket Garden at the end of Remedios Avenue. Here teams are slowly installing all the thermal protection system (TPS) tiles on the nose cone lift points of the ship and performing internal work on its payload bay section to prepare the vehicle for flight.
A road closure for Wednesday was available from 3PM CDT to 3AM CDT on Wednesday, allowing for the Spin Prime test of all of Booster 9’s engines. This was completed without issue.
This was then be followed by an all-engine Static Fire test a few days later. Should all go right – as Elon intimated it did via X shortly after the test – Ship 25 could be moved to the launch site soon after for combined stack tests and launch.
The target launch date for Starship’s second flight has been recently in shift, no less because of the need to repeat Booster 9’s static fire test. A few days after this static fire test, teams were tracking the end of August for launch but, as was expected, this has now shifted into September with latest Local Notice to Mariners pointing to a no earlier than Sept. 8 launch target.
This launch target is also pending sign-off from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on SpaceX’s mishap report for Starship’s first flight. As of writing, the FAA is still reviewing this report, and it is impossible to guess when this review may end.
Starbase undergoes major production site changes, prepares for future flights
As SpaceX prepares for Starship’s second flight, the company is also preparing for subsequent flights with multiple vehicles in flow at the production site, upcoming launch site upgrades, and testing at Massey’s test site.
Ship 28, which is understood to be flying as part of Starship’s third flight, is currently undergoing engine installation at Remedios Avenue on the engine installation stand. As of writing, five of its six engines are now installed and only missing one Raptor Vacuum (RVac) engine.
On the other hand, with Booster 10 now inside of the Mega Bay teams are preparing the vehicle for engine and shielding installation. SpaceX is aiming to launch this pair of vehicles within four weeks of Booster 9 and Ship 25’s flight, so work is well underway to prepare them for their respective engine test campaigns before launch.
Ship 29, now repositioned in the High Bay, is receiving the remaining of its TPS tiles between its sections. If this vehicle follows the same timeline as Ship 28, it could be rolled out for cryogenic proof testing within a month, an indication of SpaceX’s pace of production at Starbase.
This pace may soon kick into an even higher gear with the production site tents being dismantled and the Starfactory building expanding its footprint. Late last week, SpaceX crews started dismantling tents one and two at the production site with the latter seeing a complete removal by Aug. 18.
The production tents are coming down at Starbase. The Starfactory will expand in its place.
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) August 17, 2023
On the other hand, tent one has already seen internal material removed and torn down and several major pieces of equipment removed as well. Rings and barrel sections within both of these tents now lay outside waiting for a place to be stored and work to resume on these parts.
The new place for these sections may soon be the Starfactory building which has seen a great footprint expansion in the last few weeks. Additionally, the initial part of this building is being annexed to the newly-built expansion.
It is expected that this extension will act first as a storage location and then move into full production once all the tooling arrives. Said tooling is already starting to arrive at Starbase with large wooden crates seen transported to the Starlink processing building at the end of Boca Chica Village.
Starbase’s production site is not the only one preparing for future flights. The orbital launch site is preparing for an upcoming upgrade to its ground support equipment and tank farm systems. This will include the addition of cryogenic storage tanks at the former Starship landing pad as well as increased pump and subcooling capacity at the launch pad.
These upgrades will enable larger storage of consumables and potentially faster propellant load times for the complete Starship rocket. A reduced propellant load timeline could help reduce the overall boil-off of propellants and a larger reutilization of consumables in case of scrub and recycle.
Work is already underway for this with a new liquid oxygen pump having been installed in the last month and a new liquid methane subcooler delivered and installed on Aug. 22. Starbase’s orbital tank farm currently sports only four active liquid oxygen subcoolers, two active liquid methane subcoolers, and the newly installed liquid methane subcooler which is not active yet.
These subcoolers lower the temperature of the liquid oxygen and liquid methane allowing the load of these fluids at a higher density inside of the rocket’s tanks. Faster propellant load timelines may enable Starship to receive and store propellants at colder temperatures and therefore higher densities, increasing the amount of propellant onboard and its performance as a result.
While all of these changes are underway, testing of the hot staging ring test article at Massey’s has wrapped up. The loading cap for the structural test stand was removed from this test article between Aug. 21 and Aug. 22, indicating testing of it is now complete.
This is likely a good sign that all structural qualification testing is now complete for this uniquely-built ring never used before on Starship. The future of this test article is unknown but a potential future use could be in case of failure of Booster 9’s own hot staging ring in order to replicate the issue.
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