SpaceX 11 fired engine while preparing huge orbital test rocket

Enlarge / SpaceX’s Booster 7 undergoes a static test fire with 11 engines Tuesday in South Texas.

SpaceX

On Tuesday, SpaceX tested its Super Heavy rocket for about 12 seconds, making it the longest massive booster launch yet. The test, which ignited 11 of the Raptor’s 33 rocket engines, came as SpaceX continues to work on an orbital launch attempt for the Super Heavy first stage and Starship upper stage.

Earlier this month, SpaceX fired 14 Raptor engines at this booster for a few seconds, so Tuesday’s test did not set a new record for the number of engines tested. However, this “long duration” launch is the longest period of time that multiple Raptor engines have been fired at the same time.

What shall we do now? The path to orbit for SpaceX and the Starship launch system is unclear. Previously, the founder of SpaceX Elon Musk said The next step was to trigger a subset of the Super Heavy’s triggers for approximately 20 seconds for a self-stress test. This method of pressurizing fuel tanks uses gases generated onboard the rocket instead of separately charged inert gases such as helium.

Tuesday’s test may have been a slightly shorter version of the self-stress test – 12 seconds instead of 20 – or it could have been something else. The company takes an iterative approach to Starship and Super Heavy first stage design and development, so its test plans are transparent, much like cryogenic rocket boosters.

In all likelihood, SpaceX still has two main tests to complete before launching the joint Super Heavy rocket and Starship upper stage from the company’s Starbus facility in South Texas. SpaceX should conduct at least one short-duration test of all 33 Raptor engines simultaneously to gain confidence in the complex array of fuel plumbing and pressurization of the rocket’s propulsion system. Next, the Starship upper stage will be stacked on top of the Super Heavy, and the combined vehicles will have to perform a repeat.

What seems clear is that SpaceX is maturing its approach to working with spacecraft engineering, as recent tests, including Tuesday’s, have been completed without any apparent failures.

After completing all technical preparations, SpaceX must also obtain launch clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is in progress but not yet finalized. While it’s still theoretically possible for Starship to attempt an orbital launch in December, it’s increasingly possible that the test flight will slip into early 2023.

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