New Heat Shield Will Make or Break SpaceX Missions: SpaceX has begun reinstalling three of the six Raptor engines that will power the first orbital-class Starship and repairing the heat shield that will hopefully protect it on its first trip to space.
Known as Starship 20 or Sn20, the 50 m (~165 ft) tall steel rocket prototype has been deployed at one of SpaceX’s two suborbital testing pads since 13 August. However, no tests have been conducted, and a small army of SpaceX technicians and engineers have spent the past three or so weeks effectively turning a collection of steel tanks, tubes, and parts into a functional rocket.
While it’s unclear why SpaceX chose to do that outfitting work on an unmarked launch pad, the new activity suggests it may be nearly complete.
Exactly a month earlier, SpaceX stacked Starship Sn20 on top of Super Heavy Booster 4 (Bn4) on August 6, briefly building the largest rocket in history and completing a fit test.
Ship 20 was rapidly detached and returned to SpaceX’s Starbase factory, where all six of its Raptor engines were removed. About a week later, Ship 20 returned to pad and the suborbital has since been installed on pad B.
At the time, the implication was that SpaceX had removed Ship 20’s engines to allow the prototype to complete cryogenic-proof testing with hydraulic thrust simulators. However, despite Pad B being carefully modified over several weeks for that exact purpose, those modifications were rapidly shelved prior to the second rollout of Ship 20.
Barring a proof test with thrust simulation, the next logical conclusion was that SpaceX would still perform a cryogenic proof test before resupplying Ship 20’s Raptors and going on a steady-fire mission.
Meanwhile, much of the focus of the past few weeks has been on dismantling the Ship 20 plumbing and avionics wire runs, though it’s hard to say exactly what has been done.
What’s extremely visible and easy to follow, however, is the process of dismantling the first orbital-class Starship heat shield and repairing the few hundred tiles broken during its Pathfinder installation.
SpaceX has installed 500-1000+ tiles on Flow Starship prototypes like the SN15, but the company has never come close to the ~15,000 needed to cover the entire windward side of the world’s largest rocket upper stage.
SpaceX has embarked on that process for the first time in the past six or so weeks and has seen a surprising number of successes and failures. At some point along the way, a significant fraction of the ceramic, dinner-plate-size tiles — SpaceX technicians — chipped, broke, shattered, or ran into other fitment issues.
Over the past month or two, much progress has been made in fixing those problem tiles and SpaceX has even done a more or less complete tile installation on the angular ‘aerowcovers’ that protects the starship’s flap mechanism – dozens of custom tiles with complex shapes. require and curve
As of September 6, the Starship S20’s heat shield appears to be nearly 95% complete and the installation of the Raptor engine means the rocket’s plumbing, avionics, and tankage are also nearly finished.
For the second time in five weeks, SpaceX has rolled out Starship’s first Orbital-class Super Heavy booster from its Starbase factory to the launchpad ahead of a challenging and multi-faceted test campaign.
A little less than two weeks ago, SpaceX once again installed 29 Raptors on Booster 4. This time, however, all those engines are believed to be ready for flight — or, at minimum, stable fire testing — after completing qualification testing at SpaceX’s Central Texas development facilities.
Interestingly, each of the outer rings of the Super Heavy’s 20′ Raptor Boost engines is also expected to have its own small umbilical panel that will connect to the Orbital Launch Pad’s ground system.
When Booster 4 was installed on the brand new orbital launch mount, most of those individual engine connectors had not yet been installed and it is unclear whether SpaceX could actually test the complex mechanism before the super heavy returned to the building site. was able to do or not.
This time around, all 20 engine umbilical actuators have been installed on the launch mount and it’s safe to assume that those mechanisms will be tested extensively in the coming weeks. That test will be part of a more involved testing campaign.
Namely, if SpaceX intends to test Super Heavy Booster 4 at the orbital launch site, any booster testing will simultaneously require the shakedown of the orbital pad’s extensive, custom-built tank farm and a wide range of other ground infrastructure that simply didn’t exist at the start of 2021.
Booster 4 qualification is no less daunting, as no Super Heavy has ever been fully tested.
Now in the midst of being scrapped in place at SpaceX’s suborbital test facilities, Super Heavy Booster 3 did complete a partial cryogenic proof test and a static fire with three Raptor engines, but SpaceX has never fully filled a Super Heavy with >3000 tons (~6.6 Million lb) of propellant and never static fired more than three Raptor engines simultaneously.
Perhaps the most uncertain part of Super Heavy Booster 4 qualification is its static fire test campaign. However SpaceX gets there, the final challenge will likely be igniting all 29 of B4’s Raptor engines – potentially producing up to ~5400 tons of thrust, thus making Super Heavy the most powerful rocket booster ever tested.
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