Starship Booster 9 and launch infrastructure moving into critical testing phase

by Justin Davenport

After last week’s testing of Booster 9, the water deluge system, and other important activity at Starbase, the Starship program is now moving into a critical testing phase where Booster 9 conducted a static test firing of the Raptor engines with the water deluge in use.

The Spin Prime test requirement – completed on Friday – came ahead of a Static Fire test with a near-full set firing of Raptors on Sunday.

Booster 9 was lifted onto the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) on Thursday, July 20, after it was rolled out to the orbital launch pad from the production area of Starbase. A large amount of work was done at the OLM and launch pad area prior to the proof test on the booster, which is slated to fly on the next Starship launch.

On Sunday, July 23, Booster 9 was filled with liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen – in the methane tank – for what SpaceX billed as a propellant loading test. Both tanks reached full capacity as a booster was tested on the OLM for the first time since the eventful Starship first flight on April 20.

The test appeared to have an extended hold where the cryogenic fluids were left in the tanks, before the booster was detanked over several hours. After the testing was completed, an access door was opened at the base of the liquid oxygen tank, and workers inspected the area. It is not known what was done, but the area is closed off again.

While workers were checking the liquid oxygen tank on Booster 9, SpaceX also began preparing for the next major step in the booster’s test campaign. The water deluge system that had been installed under the OLM had been tested at partial pressure earlier in the month, but now needed a full pressure test.

The full pressure deluge test on July 28 appeared to be successful, with large jets of water coming out from the steel plates under the OLM. The water was angled so that it would miss the Raptor nozzles.

The flow of water lasted for eight to 10 seconds, and was followed by a loud release of pressure from the deluge water tank farm behind the launch tower.

The inside holes are arranged in the shape of a hexagon, while the outer holes match the locations of the outer 20 Raptor engines on the booster.

Meanwhile, at the former Massey’s gun range now converted to a SpaceX test site, Ship 28 was moved there for proof testing with cryogenic fluids on Friday, July 21. On the same date, Booster 10 was moved out of Massey’s, arriving at the “rocket garden” by the production site after midnight on Saturday, July 22.

Ship 28 was seen with frost lines on its liquid oxygen and methane tanks, after having been loaded with cryogenic fluids on Friday, July 28. The ship, equipped with fins, tiles, and a payload bay, is now expected to roll back to the production site to have its Raptor engines installed, assuming the test was successful. This ship is expected to be used with Booster 10 on the third Starship test launch and has since rolled back to the Production Site.

Besides the ships and boosters that have been built at Starbase over the last few years, smaller test articles have been used to test various features and tolerances of the vehicle. Ship 24.2 is among the latest of these, and appears to be intended to test the payload bay system prior to its use to deploy Starlink v2 full sized satellites.

The hot staging ring test article at Starbase. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF/L2)

Another recent test article is one with a hot staging ring in between an aft ring for the ship and a top section of a booster. This was rolled out to Massey’s on Sunday, July 30 for structural testing.

A hot staging ring will be added to Booster 9 and future vehicles to simplify the stage separation procedure during flight.

While Ship 28 has been undergoing its own preparations for flight, Ship 25 has had missing tiles installed and has been connected to a crane for a future lift.

Ship 25 is being prepared to fly atop Booster 9 for the upcoming second Starship test flight. However, Ship 25 is also back at the Production Site after rolling back on Sunday morning.

While Ships 25 and 28 are being prepared for future flights, other ships have been dismantled to make room as vehicles like Ship 30 have started construction. Ship 27 was cut up earlier this month, and now Ship 15 has joined Ship 27 in being taken apart. Ship 15, the Starship vehicle that was the first full vehicle with fins to successfully complete a landing, was broken apart on Wednesday, July 26.

The new high bay under construction is shown to the upper right of the image. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF/L2)

Although the ships, boosters, and orbital launch site get the most publicity, the facilities at the production site are also being upgraded. The final sections of a new processing “high bay” are being lifted and assembled onto the skeleton of the building. It is possible that vehicles could be processed in that new bay relatively soon.

In addition, the Starfactory under construction is being expanded. The Starfactory is set to replace factory tents for the production of ships and boosters. Another building on site has been seen to have stacks of full size Starlink v2 satellites waiting for launch. It remains to be seen whether Ship 28 will be the first one to launch some of these spacecraft.

The static fire of Booster 9 targeted the use of all 33 engines with a stress test of the deluge system and steel plates as well as the reworked OLM itself. A spin prime test before the static fire was undertaken on Friday, with SpaceX confirming a good test.

The Static Fire on Sunday was 2.74 seconds in duration, with four early Raptor shutdowns per SpaceX. It is yet to be known if a second Static Fire will be required.

SpaceX is attempting to protect the launch pad and Starship from a future “rock tornado” without the benefit of a flame trench, so the “upside down shower head”, as Elon Musk described it, is an integral part of making the launch pad rapidly reusable. Rapid reusability is the key to making the Starship system work for Starlink v2, Artemis lunar missions, Mars missions, and other applications.

(Lead image: Booster 9 Static Fire via NSF Live coverage).

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