SpaceX is developing Starship at its Boca Chica facility in Texas. Starship is a stainless steel behemoth spacecraft designed to launch up to 100 people on the trip of a lifetime - - to the surface of Mars. The Starship launch system is a 2-stage vehicle. The first stage is the Falcon Super Heavy booster that is powered by multiple Raptor engines - - 33 in the final version. The second stage is the Starship spacecraft that has three Raptor engines for operating in Earth's atmosphere and three optimized for the vacuum of space. Both stages are made of stainless steel. The upper stage must be protected from atmospheric entry and so has a thermal protection system on its "belly". It is comprised of small (30cm) black hexagonal pieces that give a honeycomb-like effect. Special pieces must be used on various specialized areas (such as the nose cone.)
Starship has caused a lot of excitement as the development of the project is in clear view at the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, TX. Enthusiasts have been able to watch as the Starship project meets its developmental milestones. Engine tests are often viewed by thousands and many YouTube channels and websites have sprung up to watch the development of the vessel that is expected to take humans to Mars. Before launching to Mars, however Starship will take humans to the surface of the Moon under NASA's Artemis Project.
Starship was rolled out by Elon Musk at the International Astronautical Congress in 2016. Unamed at the time, Elon presented it as the "BFR" or "Big Falcon Rocket", though some say the acronym stood for something else. SpaceX began testing for the rocket that would eventually become Starship in a series of prototype tests.
For more details on Starship, download the Starship Use's guide at SpaceX.com
Starship SN24 is the upcoming version of Starship prototypes still in production. Because there were so many changes the to starship design before the first planned orbitol launch, SpaceX opted to decomission SN20. Starship SN24 is to be stacked on Falcon Super Heavy Booster #7, also still in production will replace Booster #4. SN24 may to be the first Starship to reach orbit. SN24 flight plan includes launch on Super Heavy booster #7 that will shut down and separate 170 seconds in the flight. Booster #7 will land in the ocean about 20 miles away from the launch site. The second stage Starship SN24 will continue, reaching space and landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Hawaiian island Kauai. No part of SN24 will be recovered, but the landing of Starship will test the thermal protection system and Starship behavior as it enters the Earth's atmosphere.
In May 2022, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell stated that Starship may launch before the end of summer 2022. This means the first orbital flight of Starship will be coming soon.
Starship SN20 is the first version of Starship prototypes to be stacked on Falcon Super Heavy Booster #4. It was planned to be the first Starship to reach orbit but delays for the launch including FAA approval finally caught up to SN20 and it was removed from the pad on March 12, 2022. Booster 4 was removed from the launch pad on March 24, 2022. On May 12, 2022, SN20 was moved from the launch area to the production area and park with other old prototypes in the so-called "rocket garden."
SN20's flight was canceled but in February 2022, SN20 and Booster #4 were restacked for Elon Musks's regular "Starship update." the update was held on February 10, 2022. SN20 and Booster 4 were replaced by Starship 24 and Booster 7.
You can download the Starship SN20 orbital flight plan - - First Flight FCC Exhibit.
On August 6, 2021, Starship SN20 was placed on top of Super Heavy Booster #4, by the giant crane that has been dubbed "Frankencrane" aka "Kong" (It is a R11350-P1800 Liebherr crane) one of the largest cranes in the world.
Of course a lot of the launch and launch support systems have been built at SpaceX's Boca Chica facilities, now designated as Starbase. Work goes on day and night because the sooner Starship is launched for a suborbital flight, the more data can be acquired. Building of the Ground Support Equipment (GSE) has been ongoing, with eight tanks including four liquid Oxygen, two liquid nitrogen, one methane tank, and one water tank. A large tower for launching the Starship and an orbital launch pad. This tower is to be equipped with arms that will catch the returning super heavy booster.
The Falcon Super Heavy and Starship are powered by SpaceX's Raptor Engines that are still being developed. The latest Raptor 2.0 design are vastly improved over the previous versions. SpaceX plans three Raptor variants: sea level engine with gimbal, sea level engine without gimbal, and vacuum level engine without gimbal.
Read more about Raptor Engines on Astra's SpaceX page
A very important system to be tested by SN20 is the Thermal Protection System (TPS). It is very important that this system work flawlessly. In an attempt to make the tiles easier to service, most of them are the same shape. They are about 12-inches across and have a hexagonal shape, fitting together like a honeycomb. They have a mounting systems that allows them to move a bit while not allowing "chipping." The nose cone is a bit more difficult to cover and there are flap hinges that need more attention. Unfortunately, some of the tiles fell off during Starship SN20's first test. This may have happened during stacking when Starship was lifted by the crane.
Starship SN15 sports many improvements over previously flown prototypes. It was been stated that there were hundreds changes! (Yes, SpaceX skipped some serial number designations.) First, the three Raptor engines are a new improved model. It is important to realize that these changes are made using the data that was obtained by previous test flights. According to Elon Musk the improvements include structures, avionics software, and engine improvements.
SN15 rolled out to launch pad A in Boca Chica on April 8, 2021, without a nose cone. That was added later. There were preflight tests including ambient temperature pressure, cryogenics tests, and static fire tests in late April. More heat tiles were applied to the rocket and it also sports a Starlink satellite antenna. On May 5, 2021, Starship SN15 was launched.
After a long wait, Starship SN15's Raptor Engines were started around 5:30 pm CDT. Taking off in a cloud of orange flames, SN15 rose slowly from the pad. It was visible for a few moments before disappearing into a low cloud bank. SpaceX provided a feed from the vessel, with a new new camera attached to the upper flap that points along the side of the vessel and and lower flap. The SpaceX cameras cut out at various stages, although the shutting down of the engines was not visible, but they came back to show that the vehicle was in belly flop and that the engines had been silenced.
After about 6 minutes of flight, SN15, came down at the edge of its intended landing zone. Two of the three Raptor engines were used, with the third moving out of the way to allow the vessel to touch down on the Earth. Although SN15 landed in an orange cloud, it obviously slid a bit across the surface, the landing legs were mangled and would have to be replaced before a ref light. A methane fire at the bottom of the rocket burned for about 20 minutes but was handled by the fire suppression equipment. The heat shield tiles performed admirably, with only one casualty. Happily, Elon Musk has indicated that Starship SN15 may fly again!
Whether or not SN15 proves the reusability concept, Starship SN16 is in the high bay and will be launched in the near future.
SpaceX released the High-altitude Flight Recap of SN15.
Shortly after the demise of SN10, Starship SN11 was rolled out to the pad. This is the end of the series, because the next Starship prototype that will be launched is SN15, that evidently has some significant improvements over the first series of full-up Starship prototypes with a complete nose cone.
SN11 was launched on March 29, 2021 on a foggy day over Boca Chica. There was no way to track the rocket through the fog visually. It appeared that there was some kind of anomaly restarting the Raptors and SN11 apparently blew up before reaching the ground as evidenced by the fact that debris was found over 10 km away.
SpaceX released the High-altitude Flight Recap of SN11.
As 2021 opened, a shiny new Starship, SN9 was standing on the launch pad. High winds had knocked it off its test stand in the high bay where it was being assembled. It was quickly moved, repaired and rolled out to the launch pad. The first firing tests were run shortly thereafter.
After some delays with FAA regulators, Starship SN9 was launched on February 2, 2021 at 3:25 p.m. EST from Boca Chica. SN9 rose up gracefully, lifted by three Raptor engines. As the ship rose higher, one Raptor was switched off, leaving an orange flame dancing about the rocket's skirt until the excess fuel was spent. SN9 continued to rise upward and a second engine was shut down. The Starship continued until it was just short of its target altitude of about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) and the last engine went silent.
Starship SN9's flight plan was as SN8's before, the rocket flipped 90 degrees and began to fall toward Earth. It fell through the Earth's atmosphere, without power, dropping toward the surface soundlessly. Starship dropped to about 1.5 km before the flip maneuver was attempted. When the engines were restarted, two of them were supposed to kick in, but only one seemed to start up and keep burning. SN9 was tilted further over than its older sister. Like SN8 before, a giant orange smoky fireball signaled the demise of prototype SN9.
SpaceX released the High-altitude Flight Recap of SN9.
Starship SN10 was ferried to the launch pad on January 29, 2021, while SN9 was already on the pad, waiting for its chance to rise into the sky. The first static firing tests were run shortly thereafter.
Starship prototype rocket SN10 launched on March 3, 2021 at 5:14 p.m. US Central Time, rising into the sky over Boca Chica. Rising past wispy layers of clouds, SN10's flight was different from the last 2 as during the entire flight, a stream of white exhaust (?) plumes followed it into the sky. When one engine was shut down, the exhaust streaming from the remaining two engines showed two distinctly different colors, one stream was pale blue while the other sported an orange and yellow stream. The second Raptor shut down and SN10 continued on one engine until it hit 10km. Then it flipped on its side, belly flopping and floating in free fall until it was less than 2 km above the surface. Three engines were restarted, then switching down to one Raptor before touchdown.
The single Raptor was able to slow down the ship, but methane flames were shooting out on one side of the Starship. (Was a valve stuck open?) SN10 landed on the pad in a cloud of smoke and flame. It landed close to the spot that the SpaceX guidance system sent it. The landing was far from perfect though and it seemed to hit a little hard. It made a lurch as it was setting down, the landing wasn't exactly "stuck"! After the smoke cleared, I found myself studying the motionless SN10 Starship carefully for crumbled metal.
Starship SN10 stood acant on the launch pad, listing to one side. A bright flame lapped from one side and a water fire suppressor began spraying water on the rocket. People cheered and turned off their cameras. Starship had returned safely to mother Earth, firmly listing on the ground! It was basically erect, for about 8 minutes. Unexpectedly, the whole launch pad was illuminated by a giant explosion. SN10 shot up at least 50 feet into the air, its second attempt at launch unassisted by flight controllers. It performed a second belly flop and smacked back down on the ground, the fuselage flattened. Metal pieces flew out in all directions. RUD all over the place!
It must be said that progress was made, for getting SN10 to flip from horizontal to vertical and landing it on the X, SpaceX that is!
SpaceX released the High-altitude Flight Recap of SN10.
When Starship SN8 was rolled out to the launch pad on September 26, 2020 it had no nose cone. On October 22, 2020, the nose cone was attached to the rocket by crews working at the pad. The nose cone was lifted to the top of Starship SN8 with a giant crane at SpaceX's Boca Chica, TX facility. SN8 was the first prototype that looked like a rocketship.
On December 9, 2020, Starship SN8 launched into the clear blue sky over Boca Chica, Texas while across the globe, hundreds of thousands people tuned into streaming videos. The silver craft was the prototype of a huge rocket, intended to launch humankind into space heading for the red planet, Mars. SpaceX started up the 3 raptor engines and they roared into action, and slowly, the silver rocket lifted off the launch pad and began an ascent that seemed incredibly slow.
It began traveling up into the blue Texan sky. A billowing cloud of smoke covered the launch area. White rings of condensation from the cold fuel begin to appear around the rocket. For almost two minutes the three engines continued the upward climb, then SpaceX shut down one of the raptors and the remaining two swiveled around to balance the load of the soaring silver craft. The unburned fuel of the now silent engine burned up in the engine skirt. Unfazed, SN8 continued soaring upward. Puffy white smoke exited the rocket while the bright flame of the active engines steamed out the bottom. The rocket began to tilt toward the ground.
A minute and a half later, a second raptor was silenced and the solitary raptor continued to carry SN8 upward. The straight red plume was surrounded by the puffy white exhaust of the silenced raptors. SpaceX began firing SN8's booster rocket at the middle of the vessel (mid-ship) tipping the rocket even more toward the ground. At around 4 minutes and 45 seconds the main engine was cut off (MECO) and the mid-ship booster fired. With no further propulsion SN8 begins to fall toward the Earth, from 12,000 feet in the air!
The mid-ship booster fired and SN8 fell sideways. An upper nitrogen booster fired off in the nose cone, its propulsive force guided the great silver starship onto its side. The nose pointed slightly downward and the white rings on its body grew. The ship began its fatal fall about 5 minutes after launch. With nothing but gravity pulling it downward, the silver Starship fell steadily for one and a half minutes. Six minutes into the flight, it hit the smoke from the effort of its launch, falling through the cloud. With a roar, the raptor(s) came to life, the craft directly over its intended landing site. But the engines started up too late and a green flame from the rocket told that something had gone very wrong with at least one engine. The ground is too close! Starship SN8 hit the ground with a a loud crash, the nose cone continuing toward Earth even as the crumbled rocket sides splattered. Nothing could be seen for several seconds but an ominous brown cloud with a bright orange flame where the rocket was still burning.
Six minutes and forty-two seconds after launch, the giant Starship SN8 was no more.
SpaceX released the high-altitude flight recap of SN8, conveniently embedded here at Stargate:
Starhopper took a few brief flights in the summer of 2019, retiring after acing its own 500-foot-high hop that August. This first vessel was outfitted with one Raptor engine. The Raptor was first tested on April 3, 2019. Starhopper's first test flight reached 18 meters in July 2019. Starhopper's second reached an altitude of about 65 feet. Starhopper's final flight reached 150 meters on July 27, 2019. The entire flight was less than 1 minute, but Starhopper landed on point.
After Starhopper, SpaceX created a number of prototypes, known as MK1 to MK4, these test articles were unsuccessful, except for MK3 that was renamed to SN1. To be clear, the prototype being tested is the upper stage of the Starship launch system.
Starship SN1 was undergoing a pressurization test on February 28, 2020 when a bulkhead failed. This tank was expected to fail and supply information on construction and tank capacities.
Starship SN2 was a stripped down version of the Starship prototype that successfully performed static firing tests in March 2020 and was then retired.
Starship SN3 was undergoing a pressurization test on April 3, 2020 when a bulkhead failed. Although SN3 passed an ambient temperature test the previous night, it failed the cryogenic (cold) pressure test.
Starship SN4 blew up on the launch pad May 29, 2020. This was SN4's fifth static-fire engine test. SpaceX was prepared and quickly set up SN5 for further testing.
Starship SN5 completed a successful static fire test on July 30, 2020. This prototype used a single Raptor engine, SN27. It had no nose cone and looked like a cylinder capped with a squarish metal structure. A test of the prototype on August 3, 2020 resulted in a failure as a valve did not open causing an automatic shutdown before launch.
On August 4, 2020, Starship SN5 successfully launched and flew 150 meters (500 feet) up. It traveled sideways a bit during the brief uncrewed flight. After less than a minute,the spacecraft deployed its landing legs as planned and stuck the landing. The SpaceX navigational system for accurately landing its rockets was shown to be successful on the new Starship design.
Starship SN6 was another cylinder without a proper nose cone that was rolled out shortly after the SN5 hop. After a successful static fire test, on September 3, 2020, Starship SN6 successfully launched and flew 150 meters (500 feet) up. Again the spacecraft deployed its landing legs as planned and stuck the landing. This prototype used a single Raptor engine, SN29. The next prototype labeled SN7 was really just a tank pressure test. It was destroyed when the tank was overfilled on June 23, 2020. An additional prototype, dubbed SN7.1 was also destroyed by pressure testing on September 23, 2020.
Please note that many of the images on the SpaceX pages at Astra's are available at SpaceX Flickr site where they have been released into the public domain. Some have been modify to fit the available space at Stargate site by cropping and/or optimization so for best practices please use the official site. This webpage is ©2021 D. E. Jenkins all rights reserved. Please use the contact page to get permission to use this content or to send comments or corrections.
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