SpaceX has really caught on lately! Throughout the summer of 2020 and into late fall, the company experienced a series of successes with the construction and testing of its Spatialship prototypes. This includes multiple cryogenic load tests, static fire tests, test tank pressure tests, and even two 150m (~ 500ft) jump tests. And now it looks like SpaceX could do its first high altitude flight test as early as tomorrow!
This test will see the first Spatialship prototype with three Raptor engines (SN8) fly at an altitude of 15 km (9.3 mi) before returning home safely. The engineering teams will use this test to validate the Spatialship Maneuver ailerons as well, performing a “belly-flop” maneuver that will see how the aerodynamic surfaces of the spacecraft allow it to perform controlled landings on bodies that have an atmosphere.
The possibility that this test could take place this week was suggested by Elon Musk via Twitter this weekend. The news came in response to a comment from Michael baylor from NASASpaceFlight.com, which shared the news of an alert notice to residents of Boca Chica. These are issued in advance (along with notices of road closures) in the event of a static fire or flight tests conducted at the SpaceX launch site in South Texas.
The alert, the full text of which you can read here, stated that:
“SpaceX will host space flight activities on November 30, 2020 from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. About 10 minutes before the activity, you will be notified by the sound of a police siren in the village of Boca Chica. During this time, you may hear more than one siren notification. “
The advisory also warned that a malfunction during testing could result in a possible “overpressure event” that would shatter the windows. As such, it has been recommended, but not mandatory, that residents and their pets leave their village homes for the duration of the activity, or at least wait outside once they hear police siren and stay there until the green light is given.
Baylor also said flight restrictions are still pending, which would indicate the flight test (already scheduled for this week) has been given the green light. In reply, Musk tweeted that only a static fire would occur yesterday (November 30) and that the long-awaited flight test would take place no earlier than tomorrow (December 2).
This coincides with a public notice for Cameron County that indicated a series of temporary closures for State Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach. This includes a closure with a primary date of November 30 (7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.), with secondary dates ranging from December 1 to 2 (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.). Another was scheduled for December 3 (primary) with December 4 and 5 (all from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
A third and final closure is scheduled for December 7-9, with the main one (December 7) from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and the secondary dates from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Cameron County Judge Eddie Travino Jr. said the closures were made “in connection with spaceflight, now or in the future.”
The SN8 has been officially cleared to begin preparations after its last successful static fire test last week (Tuesday, November 24). This was the fourth static fire test performed by the SN8 and the second test with three Raptor engines. The first test on three engines took place at the end of October, followed by the SN8 which finally installed its front cone and flaps.
With this final milestone taken, Musk said via Twitter that a flight test would take place this week.
“Good static fire of the Starship SN8!” Aim for his first altitude flight at 15 km / ~ 50 km next week. The objectives are to test 3 climbs of the engine, the body flaps, the transition from the main tank to the main tank and the landing flip. “
If all goes as planned, the SN8 will shut down its engines as soon as it begins to descend. At this point, the spacecraft will turn its hull toward the ground and glide toward its landing pad, relying solely on its ailerons to control its descent. Ground crews will turn the engine back on in the final seconds and tip the tail end back for a smooth landing.
According to previous statements, Musk hopes to follow up with a suborbital flight next year. This would see a Spatialship Fly at an altitude of 200 km (~ 125 mi) using six Raptor engines (three optimized for thrust at sea level and three optimized for the vacuum of space). Meanwhile, work continues on the Very heavy additional element of the launch system, which will have no less than 28 Raptor engines.
As always, things never seem to happen precisely on time. But they do happen and come closer and closer to the climax. In a few years, we may very well see the Spatialship make regular trips to orbit, transport passengers from one continent to another, bring payloads and people to the moon, and maybe even establish a colony on Mars.
Further reading: Teslarati