SpaceX installs first high-altitude Starship’s nosecone

For the first time ever, SpaceX has stacked a flightworthy Starship to its full height. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

For the first time ever, SpaceX has stacked a flightworthy Starship prototype to its full height, leaving just one major step to go before the rocket will be tasked with an unprecedented 15 km (~50,000 ft) flight test.

On October 21st, after much anticipation, SpaceX joined the first flightworthy Starship nosecone with a stack of five structural steel rings, reinforced with longitudinal beams known as stringers. Already affixed to a steel work stand, SpaceX then installed the completed nose section on a self-propelled mobile transporter (SPMT) and rolled the assembly roughly two miles from the Boca Chica factory to dedicated launch and test facilities.

Just one day prior, Starship serial number 8 (SN8) – the first prototype to be outfitted with flaps since Starship Mk1 – successfully ignited three Raptor engines for the first time ever, marking an immeasurably important milestone for both the vehicle and engine. Now, on October 22nd, SpaceX has successfully stacked the rocket to its full height, installing the just-finished nose section to effectively complete the first flightworthy ~50m (~165 ft) tall Starship prototype.

Starship SN8 in all its completed glory. (NASASpaceflight – Nomadd)

In the ~24 hours between the Starship SN8 nosecone’s pad arrival and installation on the rocket’s tank and engine section, the 24/7 LabPadre stream managed to catch a duo of apparent reaction control system (RCS) thruster tests. Perhaps more importantly, SpaceX also appeared to perform an ambient temperature pressure test, seemingly verifying that the small liquid oxygen header tank at the tip of the nosecone was leak-free and working as expected.

SpaceX rolled Starship SN8’s nosecone – and the crane needed to install it – to the launch pad on October 21st. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Curiously, hours prior to nose installation, SpaceX apparently removed one of Starship SN8’s three Raptor engines while also revealing that a spare fourth engine was already in Boca Chica. In other words, the prototype likely has only two Raptor engines installed at the moment, meaning that SpaceX will need to install another before the company can prepare for SN8’s next major test campaign.

According to CEO Elon Musk, the plan was to static fire Starship SN8’s three Raptor engines, perform final inspections and checkouts, perform another static fire, and finally attempt the first high-attitude Starship flight test. As of October 22nd, SpaceX has seemingly completed the two steps. Nosecone freshly installed, it’s likely that SpaceX will use the second triple-Raptor static fire opportunity to test the engines while feeding propellant solely from Starship’s liquid oxygen and methane header tanks – the latter of which is located in the nose.

If successful, that second static fire will open the Starship SN8’s flight debut, in which the massive rocket will attempt to fly to 15 km (50,000 ft), plummet back to Earth like a skydiver (belly-down), and perform a radical rocket-powered flip maneuver before landing in one piece beside the launch pad. Depending on how long it takes to firmly affix SN8’s nosecone to the rest of the rocket, that static fire could easily be less than a week away, followed by Starship’s most important flight test yet less than a week after that.

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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