SpaceX Starship launch vehicle has many potential uses and capabilities that will enable companies and organizations to reach space like never before. Engineers are developing a fully reusable Starship Launch System at the StarBase facility located in Boca Chica Beach, Texas. Reusability enables SpaceX to reduce the cost of spaceflight and enable long-term human presence in space.
The company has already done several test flights with the Starship prototype, and is now getting ready to conduct the first full-scale orbital flight test with a super heavy rocket. The super heavy is designed to carry the Starship into orbit, powered by a methane-fueled Raptor engine. It is set to become the world’s most powerful and largest rocket in history.
On 4 June 2010, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. It will be one of the most revolutionary rockets in the history of spaceflight – and its first launch completely took off. Now, with Starship aiming to make its first orbital launch later this year, SpaceX is attempting to make history once again. But for this first test flight to be successful, SpaceX must ensure that the 29 Raptor engines on the bottom of the super heavy will fire without significant problems.
These tests usually involve filling the booster’s tanks with cryogenic liquid, to test the temperature and pressure experienced during flight. But the most realistic test that needs to be completed before Booster 4 can lift off would be a full steady fire using all 29 of its engines.
To limit the size of the explosion if things go wrong, SpaceX will only fill Booster 4 with as much methane as is needed for steady fire. For a typical 3-second steady fire, the booster would need only 14 tons of liquid methane and 50 tons of liquid oxygen. However it makes sense to fill the liquid oxygen tank substantially as it reduces the weight of the vehicle without making the potential fireball worse.
Although Raptor engines have become a lot more reliable, this test will be on an entirely different scale to anything SpaceX has done before. Therefore, they would start with just a few engines by setting small steady fires and then build up to a full 29. When Booster 4 lights up all 29 of its engines, it will generate a thrust level 7 times higher than that of the Falcon 9.
This number is set to increase as the Raptor engine has been upgraded. The only other rocket to come close to it is the Soviet N1 rocket. It was the same size as the Starship and also had a similar layout of 30 engines. But sadly, it made only 4 launches, all of which ended in failure. Many of the failures were caused by the exploding engines, which led to a range of other problems during launch. Now with a much more advanced computer system, SpaceX will be able to shut down a failing engine before turning it into a grenade.
Engine problems on the N1 were never discovered prior to launch because the Soviets did not have a large enough test facility to conduct steady fire on the first stage of the N1. It’s a problem SpaceX is hoping to solve with its Boca Chica facility. But it’s not only rockets that can cause problems during steady fire. The entire launch structure surrounding the rocket plays an important role in keeping the rocket safe.
Typically, launch pads use flame diverters to divert rapid ejection away from the rocket and launch pad. But SpaceX is taking a more risky approach with Starship. The current design of the orbital launch pad at Boca Chica has no flame diverter and the booster sits just 20 meters above the ground. And so, when the engine fires, an enormous amount of heat and energy is sent directly onto the concrete below.
In the past, this has caused problems for SpaceX, with large chunks of concrete being thrown back into the engine bay, completely destroying the engines. To avoid this, SpaceX covers the concrete in an ablative coating called Martite. This protects the concrete and prevents it from cracking and flying into the engine bay. The orbital launch pad will also have a large deluge system that sprays water directly under the engines.
Despite common misconceptions, water isn’t just for turning down heat. Its main goal is to reduce the sound energy created by the engines, which can be extremely harmful to both the rocket and the launch pad. Another factor that SpaceX has to consider is the enormous amount of load on the vehicle when all 29 engines catch fire. The thrust puck on the bottom of the booster is designed to transfer all force from the engine to the walls of the booster.
To gradually ramp up to full power, the ignition of the engine would be staggered. On the Falcon 9, the opposing engines are lit in pairs, 150 milliseconds apart, meaning the rocket reaches full power in just half a second. For the super heavy, a similar ignition sequence would take about 2 seconds to light up each engine.
The reason for having so many engines instead of a few big ones is redundancy. If several engines shut down during launch or landing, it does not necessarily mean that the rocket is destroyed, as other engines may turn on or throttle to compensate for the loss of thrust. It’s a philosophy that the Falcon 9 also employs. During the Starlink launch last year, a Merlin engine shut down during launch but the Falcon 9 still managed to get its payload into the correct orbit.
However, this affected the booster landing, as the engine that failed was not able to slow the vehicle down for landing. On the Falcon 9, only 3 engines are capable of performing a landing burn, so they can’t do anything if one fails to light. But since the Super Heavy has more engines than the Falcon 9, it will give it a much wider throttle range, allowing it to hover.
This is especially important for the super heavy because it is designed to fly out of the sky rather than actually landing. These are all important milestones that will not be successfully reached until SpaceX does several full steady fires. Whatever happens during Super Heavy’s first full steady fire, it’s guaranteed to be extremely exciting. If all goes well, it should pave the way for Starship to make its first orbital launch later this year.
Either way, it’s amazing to think of all the incredible engineering that went into making not only the most advanced rocket engines ever built, but the enormous structures that sit atop them. During an update on the SpaceX Starship program, Elon Musk just showed off a brief clip that explained part of a plan to use these vehicles to get to Mars.
This involved a starship in orbit around Earth, matched by a similarly sized vehicle for refueling before embarking on a long journey to another planet. He explained that Starship only needed its “super heavy” boosters to launch from Earth.
So it seems likely that the second vehicle could be powered from the Moon only by its Raptor engine. Starship will be a versatile launch vehicle that will revolutionize space exploration. Some of SpaceX’s plans for Starships and potential uses include: Starships would be a cost-effective option for deploying payloads. With a single launch, a Starlink broadband fleet of 400 satellites can be launched into orbit.
Researchers can also use Starship Launch Services to deploy a fleet of satellites that have advanced Earth-observing technology that could enable researchers to study climate change, monitor weather, among other applications.