Starship SN20 Orbital Launch Countdown: When Will It Finally Fly?: A few months ago, SpaceX president, Gwynne Shotwell, mentioned that SN20 would fly and attempt to reach orbit in July of this year. July already end, but SN20 hasn’t flown yet.
When will SN20 finally fly? Why did it fail to fly on the expected the first time? And how many days are we into the countdown for the starship orbital launch?
The Starship is one of SpaceX’s most notable projects currently in development. It is the company’s premier bet for fully developing a fully reusable spaceship that can carry any kind of payload. Its design goals plan to be able to carry passengers into space eventually.
The Starship has occupied top development priority since 2020, but flight testing was being carried out since 2019, with the ‘Starhopper’ prototype first completing a hop test.
Subsequent prototypes of the ‘SN’ designation have been built one after another, with some, such as the SN4, prove to be failures while others, such as the SN6 and SN12, are resounding successes.
SN20 is the designation given to the current prototype that is being prepared for flight testing. Sub-assemblies for the SN20 were spotted as early as 7th March 2021, with a post by NASA on Twitter a week afterward.
The tweet stated that the SN20 would be flown on top of the new Super Heavy booster prototype designated ‘BN3’. The SN20 is expected to be launched from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch pad, enter orbit, and land softly in the ocean near Hawaii after 90 minutes of orbital flight.
Elon Musk and the rest of the folks at SpaceX can certainly be described as being very ambitious, and their construction and testing timeframes for their prototypes have certainly been ambitious.
It is also important to remember again that SpaceX is well-determined and hardy in the face of costly disasters and continues to push forwards despite them. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell has previously stated that the company is ‘shooting for July’.
July has come, but the SN20 has not flown. Shotwell had admitted, however, that SpaceX may not meet their July target and that it is difficult. To quote Shotwell, “We are really on the cusp of flying that system, or attempting the first orbital flight of that system in the very near term.”
Elon Musk has continuously been very clear that he wants Starship to quickly build a sustainable operational capability to take people to the moon and Mars. The question of when the SN20 will finally fly seems to truly be up in the air as SpaceX is now stating that the flight will commence ‘no earlier than August’.
They also require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flight approval to get the Starship up in the air as all air traffic around the area needs to be cleared. FAA approval for the flight has not come yet, even as July is ending.
Once the launch is sanctioned and approved, additional measures will have to be taken around the launch pad area. These include road closures and temporary flight restrictions. Road closures need to be enforced to eliminate the risk of falling debris impacting the ground and causing harm to people, property, and their belongings.
It can be speculated that the FAA is particularly concerned about this very possibility as the SN20 will fly powered with the most ambitious and technically complex Super Heavy booster prototype yet, the BN3.
Powered by 28 Raptor engines, industry experts and SpaceX themselves are on guard for any possibility of a repeat of the SN4 mishap. As you might remember, the Starship SN4 exploded during its test flight due to an issue with its propellant systems supplying fuel to its Raptor engines.
The fuel lines to the engines snapped, which led to the total destruction of the spacecraft. The SN11 prototype nearly faced a catastrophic explosion as the fuel flow backfired and sprayed onto the interior concept.
Work has continued on the SN20 as necessary, however, and despite the lack of detailed information available publicly, its progress can be tracked based on photos posted by Elon Musk on Twitter.
He posted a photo on June 15th, which shows two pieces of the rocket being affixed together. A flight plan has been given by SpaceX to the Federation Communications Commission (FCC) this month however so it can reasonably be expected that the Federation Aviation Administration (FAA) approval will come by the end of August.
Even then, it is difficult to say with certainty as changes in the spacecraft’s internals or any change in SpaceX’s plans will further delay the entire thing.
SpaceX has just completed its first rocket firing tests of the Super Heavy BN3 prototype at Boca Chica with three engines for first-time tests as per protocol. When CEO Elon Musk was asked about further tests of the rocket, he stated that he hopes to try a 9-engine firing test on BN3 soon.
All this testing for the BN3 prototype would seem to indicate that SpaceX is building up to a full launch test as planned, with the BN3 carrying the SN20 into orbit. However, Elon Musk has also made statements that ask us to reconsider this assessment of ours.
A small minority of industry experts have stated that they do not expect the BN3 to carry the SN20 into orbit at the current rate. Following this, Elon Musk has recently stated that “the Booster 3 (BN3) Super Heavy Rocket likely won’t fly in space” and instead would be used for ground tests.
In the fast-paced testing plan progression framework followed by SpaceX, many decisions are often made on the fly based on ever-changing data and results from tests.
So, will the BN3 carry SN20 at all? Or will the BN4 prototype do the job instead? We do not know. What we indeed know is that the SN20 will be flown into space this year. Let us take this opportunity to examine the BN4 prototype a little.
The BN4 prototype was developed alongside the BN3 prototype with the intent to launch it right after the BN3 launched. Based on the testing results of the BN3, the BN4’s mission profile and configuration would have been set forth.
The ‘final’ design for the Super Heavy has not probably been built yet, but if they have, then they can configure the vehicles as they wish according to mission specifications.
It is yet unknown how many Raptor engines the BN3 is going to fly without of the total 28. If the BN3 successfully flies with 18 Raptor engines then the BN4 may very well launch with 22 Raptor engines for an extended suborbital flight test.
If the BN3 fails, however, then the BN4 will also launch with 18 Raptor engines. Conversely, if the BN3 exceeds all expectations, then the BN4 will be the prototype to look out for because Elon Musk’s ambitious precondition will lead him to attempt a test with the full set of 28 Raptor engines.
Going back to Musk’s recent statement about the BN3 not flying, we can assume that the SN20 will fly with the BN4, which will mean a post-August launch date. The SN4 is also not expected to perform a full landing as far as reports from SpaceX suggest, only splash in the sea like the BN3 was supposed to.
It seems as though Space is truly in a few spots of bother in attempting to get their launches growing. Aside from technical difficulties, the coronavirus pandemic may have had some influence on the plans.
With all that said and considered and with limited information available, you can reliably expect the SN20 to launch on either the BN3 or BN4 in August or very soon after August in September.
The worst-case scenario would be a late October launch, still falling well within the timeline approved by the FCC. As explicitly stated many times over in a wide variety of sources, the Starship project represents the ultimate goal and dream for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s vision of regularized space travel.
All the prototypes from the first Starhopper and the SN20 with the successes and mishaps in-between will undoubtedly culminate into new frontiers unlocked for the entire aerospace industry.
If the Starship is eventually going to carry humans into space by 2023, it will have to pass all of its tests successfully. The pressure on SpaceX’s scientists and engineers is always intense, and their work should not go disrespected even if SpaceX may often fail to reach its goals.
The Super Heavy booster with which the Starship will fly is quite frankly one of the most sophisticated aerospace technology pieces currently in existence. It will be a miracle if the prototypes successfully work without any problem whatsoever.
Thanks for reading till the end. Comment what’s your opinion about this information “Starship SN20 Orbital Launch Countdown: When Will It Finally Fly?”.
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Information Source: Youtube – Futurephile