Starship is getting close to its second Integrated Flight Test (IFT). Booster 9 completed its pre-flight testing and now awaits its partner for the second launch. Since Ship 25 was already tested months ago, this only leaves full stack testing and pending regulatory approval for the second flight.
After the initial static fire of Booster 9 on August 6 was not entirely successful, SpaceX performed another fire on August 25. During the first fire, four engines performed a shutdown prematurely, aborting the full static fire after 2.74 seconds, out of the expected duration of just under five seconds.
Right after the fire, SpaceX removed the Booster from the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) and rolled it back to the Production Site. After this move, the hot staging ring was installed. This 6-foot-high ring is an extension needed to modify the booster for the hot staging of the upper stage. It features openings to release the exhaust of the six engines below the Ship while the Ship is still attached to the Booster.
For hot staging, the Booster will still have three engines ignited while the Ship engines are already powered up to reduce gravity loss during flight and solve other issues, such as settling fuels in the upper stage.
After the installation of the ring, the Booster was rolled out again. It now featured engine protection around the engines, which shielded them during transport. This has not always been the case for engine transport in Boca Chica, and some engines showed some significant dents in the past. While it is unclear if these dents appeared during transport, it is a possible mitigation against such damages during transport events.
The second fire, performed on August 25, appears more successful than the first. According to SpaceX, all 33 engines of the Booster ignited. No other static fire of Super Heavy managed to ignite all engines. Two engines were shut down shortly after ignition, with 31 completing the entire duration of approximately five seconds.
Booster 9 static fire from the top of the launch tower pic.twitter.com/AScDvl50ww
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 28, 2023
The new deluge system, the deflector plate, significantly impacted the overall power suppression. In shots from above, published by SpaceX, it can be seen that the flames and thrust are much less powerful when escaping from the OLM than B7’s static fire. Besides some light damage to installments, like a fence close to the launch site, the overall area is in good shape after the test.
After this test, Booster 9 performed high-engine static fires, two spin primes, and three cryogenic proof tests. This is much less compared to over 20 tests performed on Booster 7 and shows how SpaceX reduced the testing needed to validate the vehicles. The vehicle is expected to be done with its single-stage test campaign, and next up would be the stacking of Ship 25 on top of it.
Status of the Upper Stage
Ship 25 has been at the Rocket Garden since it was rolled back in preparation for the first Booster 9 static fire. It performed its first and only Static Fire of all six Raptor engines on June 26, and most of the work on the Ship has been related to thermal protection systems (TPS).
While the TPS was mainly completed before the static fire campaign, the Ship still had the crane lifting points attached to it, which are needed to place and remove it to and from the suborbital test stands. Since this is no longer needed, SpaceX started removing the lifting points.
Once the lifting points are removed, the areas get filled with TPS tiles, as openings or gaps in the heatshield would not allow the Ship to survive the heat of reentry. This process was accelerated once Booster 9 completed its test campaign and has been completed since then.
SpaceX also added the company’s logo to the Ship now, similar to how it was done to Ship 24. The serial number print still needs to be added to the Ship if SpaceX will go for a similar branding as Ship 24.
Ship 25 has gotten its livery and only has a couple remaining tiles to put on! Hopefully that means we see it roll to the launch site and stacked on B9 soon.🤞 @NASASpaceflight pic.twitter.com/NCONywUw1z
— Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer) August 30, 2023
Next up for the Ship would be the transport of SPMTs back to the launch site and the stacking on Booster 9 shortly after that. Cameron County still needs to list potential road closures for the transport event, but a transport late this week or early next week is likely.
Based on the fast time of lift of Booster 9, stacking could be performed in less than 12 hours from the beginning of the initial rollout.
Once the stacking has been performed, the potential path of testing SpaceX might choose remains to be seen.
A potential path is performing a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) to fully validate Ship and Booster, ground infrastructure, and countdown software. During this, the vehicle would count to T-10 seconds (if Booster 7 and Ship 24 are repeated) before aborting the simulated launch sequence.
SpaceX workers moving to deploy the Ship lifting pins on Mechazilla's Chopsticks (also, human for scale)!
This is in preparation for Ship 25's arrival and full-stack operations!
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) August 26, 2023
This would require extensive safety measures, including a significant, flight-like methane load. SpaceX must evacuate Boca Chica village and the surrounding area and implement a flight-like exclusion zone around the launch site.
Another less likely, however less demanding, process would be to perform a cryo test of the entire stack. In this test, SpaceX would validate the integrity of the stack since it was moved around a lot since the last tanking.
SpaceX might perform both tests, one of them, or none at all, depending on needs and requirements set by themself. As of now, SpaceX still needs to communicate the possibilities.
While all of this would clear Starship from a hardware site for a second flight, there are still open questions regarding the regulatory parts for the second flight. The FAA still needs to finish the investigation report into the first flight of Starship.
Once this has been cleared, the FAA can decide if it would be safe for Starship to fly again based on available documentation. Neither SpaceX nor the FAA has communicated a timeline for this process, and it is unclear if it aligns with SpaceX’s hardware readiness for flight two.
SpaceX, however, has started to brief mariner safety boards about a potential flight on September 8 for Starship. This does not correlate with the FAA report and is likely a placeholder SpaceX hopes for right now.
Other restrictions, like flight restrictions, have yet to be filled. SpaceX will also notify residents of Boca Chica before a potential flight to perform an evacuation before the flight.
Second Flight and beyond
Should SpaceX perform the second flight in September, other vehicles could follow quickly, depending on the damage on the launch site after flight two.
Ship 28 and Booster 10 are already advanced in their build and testing campaign, and should the flight not destroy the launch site, another flight this year is achievable from a hardware readiness point of view.
(Lead image: Booster 9 Static Fire. Via Sean Doherty for NSF/L2)
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