Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, said Friday the company’s huge new Starship rocket could be ready for its first orbital test launch from South Texas as soon as November, but the schedule comes with two big uncertainties that may push the launch to next year.
“If all goes well, Starship will be ready for its first orbital launch attempt next month, pending regulatory approval,” Musk tweeted.
The new schedule update from Musk came the day after SpaceX test-fired the newest Starship vehicle, known as Ship 20 or SN20, at the company’s development facility near Boca Chica Beach east of Brownsville, Texas. A vacuum-rated Raptor engine, similar to the engines Starship will use in space, ignited for several seconds on a launching stand at SpaceX’s Starbase complex Thursday night.
SpaceX briefly fired the privately-developed rocket again later the same night.
It was the first test-firing of a Raptor vacuum engine mounted to a Starship rocket. The vacuum variant of the methane-fueled Raptor engine has a larger nozzle to improved performance in the airless environment of space.
Three vacuum-rated Raptor engines will fly on orbital-class Starship missions. Three sea level Raptor variants, with smaller nozzles, will be used for vertical Starship landings after returning from space.
Unlike the Starship prototypes flown on the recent atmospheric hops, Ship 20 is covered in thousands of heat-resistant tiles to protect the craft’s stainless steel structure from the scorching heat it will encounter during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
First firing of a Raptor vacuum engine integrated onto a Starship pic.twitter.com/uCNAt8Kwzo
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 22, 2021
The Starship will launch on top of a huge reusable first stage booster called the Super Heavy. Made of stainless steel, the entire stack stands 394 feet (120 meters) tall, higher than any rocket ever built.
Fitted with up to 33 Raptor engines, the Super Heavy will propel the Starship into space with twice the thrust of NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 moon rocket, and nearly double the power of NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket.
In August, SpaceX teams in South Texas briefly stacked the entire Starship rocket on a launch mount for a fit check and photo opportunity. At the time, SpaceX connected 29 Raptor engines — four fewer than the booster will use on an operational flight — to the Super Heavy and rolled the booster to the ever-expanding launch complex, just east of the company’s build site.
After the fit check, SpaceX removed the Raptor engines from the Super Heavy, designated Booster 4, as attention turned to preparing Ship 20 for cryogenic proof testing in September.
SpaceX then readied Starship for its first static fire tests this week. More test-firings may occur before Ship 20 is mounted on top of the Super Heavy booster again.
Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to perform cryogenic proof testing of Booster 4 some time in the coming weeks, likely followed by a series of test-firings, culminating in a static fire with its full complement of Raptor engines.
Outfitting of the launch pad tower at Boca Chica has also continued since its initial…