SpaceX has installed a custom-built ballast atop its fourth full-scale Starship prototype, a sign that the company is rapidly approaching the ship’s first Starhopper-style hop test.
Although CEO Elon Musk officially “redirected” SpaceX’s resources away from Starship’s first flight and towards Crew Dragon’s NASA astronaut launch debut, the company continues to work around the clock to ready Starship SN4 for the program’s biggest test yet. Designed with the goal of creating a fully-reusable, ultra-capable launch vehicle that is unprecedentedly affordable, SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy booster have made impressive progress over the last 12 or so months.
In July and August 2019, Starhopper – a low-fidelity testbed and proof of concept – successfully performed two untethered hop tests, ultimately flying more than 150m (~500 ft) above ground before safely touching down. Three months later, the first full-scale Starship prototype was destroyed almost immediately after its first pressure test began, a failure that lead SpaceX to expedite factory upgrades. Just six months later, SpaceX has completed multiple successful tests, including pressure tests that pushed beyond the pressures needed for safe human spaceflight, several full wet dress rehearsals (WDRs) with live propellant, and three Raptor engine static fires. In fewer words, Starship is ready for its next big test: flight.
However, Starship SN4 currently has just one Raptor engine installed and will remain in that configuration for its inaugural hop, expected to reach a maximum altitude identical to Starhopper (150m/500ft). The odd configuration means that the rocket will be propelled by asymmetric thrust, as Starship’s ‘thrust puck’ engine section is designed to hold three Raptor engines in a triangular formation. Raptor is capable of producing up to 200 metric tons (~440,000 lbf) of thrust with an unclear level of throttle control (likely mediocre according to comments made by Elon Musk).
Impressively, although it might seem reasonable to assume that Starship SN4 is about as heavy as the ~120 ton Starhopper, the clear and present need to install substantial ballast suggests otherwise. Combined with comments made during SN4’s April 2020 transport from factory to launch site, it appears that even SpaceX’s early Starship engine sections weigh just 50-60 metric tons (110,000-125,000 lb) empty. That weight doesn’t account for the flaps, heat shield, nose section, or many other heavy components that orbital Starships will eventually need but is still impressive.
That impressive weight reduction, Raptor’s inability to safely throttle low, and the FAA’s lack of interest in dozens (up to hundreds) of tons of explosive propellant flying above or around populated areas poses its own challenges for the first full-scale Starship flight. The addition of ballast helpfully solves (or at least alleviates) several of those issues. Notably, ballast can prevent SpaceX from having to fuel Starship SN4 with dozens of extra tons of explosive propellant to counteract the high thrust of its single engine and permit a safe launch and landing.
At the same time, if Starship SN4’s wet weight is reduced by carrying less propellant during its first flight, that actually exacerbates the problem of Raptor’s small throttle range, as a lighter ship would be much harder to manage as the engine rapidly burns propellant and thus loses mass. With ballast, Raptor won’t have to throttle as low as it would otherwise have to to ensure a gentle rate of deceleration. Built out of sheet steel and two spare rolls of the same steel used to form Starship rings, Starship SN4’s new ballast likely increases its dry mass by some 50% or more (25+ metric tons).
Pending Crew Dragon’s inaugural astronaut launch, now scheduled no earlier than 3:22 pm EDT (19:22 UTC), May 30th after weather delayed the first May 27th launch attempt, Starship SN4 has no testing periods on the calendar at the moment. Speaking around May 23rd, Musk stated that the ship was likely at least a “few weeks” away from its flight debut, suggesting that the ship will perform another static fire test to prepare for its first hop as early as next week. Stay tuned for updates as SpaceX’s works towards two very exciting Crew Dragon and Starship milestones.
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