It’s been 9 months since we last saw a new prototype of Starship leave the factory SpaceX in Texas, United States. The unfinished rocket, designated S24, is scheduled for qualification tests, but the Elon Musk-led company still needs regulatory approval to launch the fully stacked system.
The launch of the S24 prototype is a potential sign that SpaceX is on track to perform the first test of orbital flight of the fully stacked Starship rocket later this year, as promised by Musk, the company’s founder and CEO. Another promise from Musk, that SpaceX will attempt 12 Starship launches in 2022, seems overly optimistic at the moment, but crazier things have happened.
Starship is designed to transport cargo and passengers to Earth orbit, the Moon and Mars. Musk has described it as a “widespread transportation mechanism for the large solar system.” But more conservatively, the company must prove that the vehicle is capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon, according to a NASA contract. The space agency wants to put astronauts on the lunar surface by 2025, which means SpaceX needs to get down to business; a fully stacked Starship rocket has yet to take off.
The sudden appearance of Starship’s S24 prototype is therefore a good sign for the company. The unfinished unit left the SpaceX factory at the Texas facility yesterday and was transported to a test area. A video posted on NASASpaceflight’s YouTube channel showed the new prototype being transported, providing several clear views of the giant. The prototype will need to pass some basic qualification tests, such as pressure tests and cryogenic tests. If all goes well, S24 will move to suborbital platform A for further evaluation, as explained. Teslarati:
Instead of starting directly with static firing tests, SpaceX will minimize the risk of catastrophic failure by using hydraulic cylinders to simulate the thrust of 6 Raptor V2 engines while Starship’s steel tanks and piping are cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Only after Ship 24 completes stress tests will SpaceX install new Raptor engines and [realizará] several static fires.
Hundreds of tiles are missing from the rocket and one deck aerodynamics, but the S24 exhibits some differences from previous versions, such as a sturdier thruster section, a new nose, an improved landing propellant tank, and a payload bay and door, according to Teslarati.
The previous prototype, the S20, made its first appearance in August 2021 and was retired in May 2022. The S20 never took off, but underwent Raptor static fire testing and was temporarily stacked on top of the Super Heavy BN4 booster, which turned him into biggest rocket never assembled.
Depending on how things go, S24 could stay on the platform or go back to the factory for further work. The prototype could well be the upper stage that sits on top of Booster 7, which is also being developed at the Boca Chica, Texas, facility. The Super Heavy booster is about to undergo the Raptor facility, according to NASASpaceFlight.
However, if SpaceX wants to conduct its orbital test, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must complete its environmental review, which is expected to be delivered by May 31. The FAA has delayed this long-awaited review four previous times, but the regulatory agency is expected to release it next week. The Boca Chica facility, or Starbase, as SpaceX employees know it, is located on environmentally sensitive land.
The result of the review could have a significant influence on the project; the worst case scenario for SpaceX would be a full environmental assessment of the Boca Chica site, which could take years. Alternatively, the FAA could come back with a list of easy-to-solve recommendations for SpaceX to follow. Or something in between. Either way, we will be watching these developments closely.