SpaceX ignited engines on both the first and second stages of its Starship launch system on Wednesday, signaling that it is getting closer to a test flight of the massive rocket later this year.
On Monday evening at 5:20 pm local time in South Texas, engineers ignited a single Raptor engine on the Super Heavy booster that serves as the rocket’s first stage. This is the first time the company has ever conducted a static fire test of the booster, which will ultimately be powered by 33 Raptor rocket engines.
About three hours later, on a separate mount at its “Starbase” facility in Texas, SpaceX ignited two engines on the Starship upper stage of the rocket. The company later shared a short video on Twitter of the evidently successful test.
These two static firings, which are intended to test the plumbing of the rocket’s liquid oxygen and methane propellant systems, are significant. They are the first static fire tests of 2022 at the South Texas launch site. Moreover, these vehicles—dubbed Booster 7 and Ship 24 to reflect their prototype numbers—could be the ones that SpaceX actually uses for an orbital launch attempt. Finally, this is the first time SpaceX has test-fired its new version of the Raptor engine, Raptor 2, on a rocket.
These tests follow a year-long period of development work by SpaceX to mature the design of the Starship vehicle from a prototype used for short, 10-km hops into a vehicle that can climb above Earth’s atmosphere and then survive the fiery return back to the planet’s surface. This work has included an evolving design of steering flaps as well as heat shield tiles to protect the vehicle. SpaceX has also had to build a series of Super Heavy prototypes before reaching a design believed to be flightworthy.
Tuesday’s successful test of Booster 7 follows a failed “spin start” test four weeks ago that resulted in an anomaly that sent the rocket back to the company’s high bay facility for some remediation work. That issue appears to have been resolved, and the hardware was salvaged.
In addition to verifying the hardware, Tuesday’s separate tests should also provide confidence about the performance of ground systems used to fuel and support the rocket during launch.
Given that the Raptor engines on both Super Heavy and the Starship upper stage did not experience a significant anomaly, it’s likely that SpaceX will progressively fire more engines on each vehicle in the coming days and weeks.
These vehicles are experimental and may fail. SpaceX is using an iterative design process to reach a flight-ready version of Starship. To that end, the company has already nearly completed “Ship 25” in a high bay facility about 2 km from its launch site in South Texas and is working on elements of Ships 26 and 27. Meanwhile, Booster 8 is coming along in another large bay as work progresses on Booster 9 and 10.
SpaceX has yet to receive a launch license for Starship from the Federal Aviation Administration, but it gained a critical regulatory approval from the federal agency earlier this summer that indicates it will eventually be able to obtain a license. So given the start of a test-firing campaign, it seems possible that a launch attempt is possible—perhaps even probable—this year.