Some two hours after Starhopper’s inaugural untethered flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to post an uncut video showing the ungainly rocket’s launch and landing from the perspective of both a drone and Starhopper’s lone Raptor engine.
As noted by commenters, Starhopper’s first flight also marks perhaps an even more fascinating milestone: it’s technically the first launch ever of a full-flow staged-combustion (FFSC) rocket engine. Whether or not the development hell Raptor required is or was worth it to SpaceX, the company has become the first and only entity on Earth to develop and fly a FFSC engine, beating out the national space agencies of both the United States and Soviet Union, both of which built – but never flew – prototypes.
Instead of inexplicably shelving a mature prototype development and test program, SpaceX iterated through several subscale Raptor prototypes, test-fired the engines for more than 1200 seconds total, used that data to design and build full-scale Raptors, and finally sped into a hardware-rich test campaign with six (soon to be seven) new engines. After SpaceX settled on a full-flow staged-combustion cycle and methane/oxygen (methalox) propellant, Raptor conducted its first full-scale tests all the way back in 2014, performing preburner flow and ignition tests at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.
Two years and many additional subcomponent tests later, SpaceX successfully performed the inaugural static fire test of its first completed subscale Raptor, a huge milestone for any rocket engine. In the 12 months following its first static fire (September 2016), SpaceX performed dozens of static fire tests with several subscale engines, putting the new propulsion system through >1200 seconds of combined testing.
A year after that, SpaceX was still testing subscale engines but the first full-scale Raptor engine was just a few months away from completing assembly in Hawthorne and heading to McGregor to kick off full-scale static fire testing. Indeed, four months after CEO Elon Musk’s September 2018 update, Raptor serial number 01 (SN01) shipped to Texas in late January and successfully ignited for the first time on February 3rd. SpaceX’s finalized full-scale Raptor engine is designed to produce more than 2000 kN (450,000 lbf, 200 tons) of thrust at full-throttle.
Since that inaugural ignition, SpaceX’s propulsion team – perhaps to their detriment, under orders from Musk – pushed SN01 and several of its successors to their limits as quickly as possible, resulting in severe, irreparable damage in several cases. On the other hand, the no-holds-barred, ‘hardware-rich’ (i.e. destructive) test program has allowed SpaceX to relatively quickly solve several major bugs that prevented the engine from passing longer test fires.
Raptor SN05 was originally expected to support Starhopper’s first flight(s) but had to be passed up after suffering damage in one of its final June 2019 acceptance tests. Raptor SN06 became the first engine – likely thanks to tweaks afforded by data gathered from its failed brethren – to pass all of those acceptance tests, leading to its eventual installation on Starhopper in early July.
Raptor’s impressive development culminated on July 25th with the engine’s first untethered flight while attached to Starhopper, a 9m-diameter (30 ft) low-fidelity prototype that is more or less a mobile test stand for the next-generation SpaceX engine. Raptor is now the only FFSC engine in history that has powered a flight-capable vehicle’s launch and landing, even if said flight featured an apogee of just 20-30 meters (65-100 ft).
“In full-flow staged combustion (FFSC), even more complexity is added as all propellant that touches the engine must necessarily end up traveling through the main combustion chamber to eke every last ounce of thrust out of the finite propellant a rocket lifts off with. As such, FFSC engines can be about as efficient as the laws of physics allow any given chemical rocket engine to be, at the cost of exceptional complexity and brutally difficult development.“
SpaceX delays Starhopper’s first flight a few days despite Raptor preburner test success
For more on what exactly makes full-flow staged-combustion engines uniquely capable and challenging to develop, the subject has been covered at length in past Teslarati articles.
According to Musk, the next major challenge facing Starhopper and (presumably) Raptor SN06 is far more ambitious 200-meter (650 ft) hop and flight test that could happen as soon as the first half of August.
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