Elon Musk says a SpaceX Starship prototype has passed a critical “cryo proof” test for the first time, opening the door for the rocket to move on to even bigger tests.
Late on April 26th, SpaceX’s South Texas team (and possibly a console team in California) readied the fourth full-scale Starship prototype (SN4) for its second major test. Known as a cryogenic proof test, it began less than 24 hours after the rocket completed a room-temperature gas pressure test to check for leaks and verify that the pressure vessel was sound. Musk quickly confirmed that Starship SN4 passed through that “ambient proof test” without issue.
For the cryo proof test, room-temperature nitrogen gas was replaced with ultra-cold liquid nitrogen, serving as a chemically neutral (i.e. non-explosive) simulant for Starship’s liquid oxygen and methane propellant. After a few hours of partial loading and offloading cycles meant to ensure that Starship’s valves and propellant supply hardware was working as intended, SpaceX controllers fully filled the rocket with some ~1000 metric tons (2.2 million lb) of liquid nitrogen. Once full, a hydraulic ram setup was activated to exert forces akin to Raptor engines operating at full thrust. After several prior failures, Starship SN4 thus became the first to survive the ordeal and graduate into the next stage of testing.
According to CEO Elon Musk, that next step will be a static fire test with a lone Raptor engine installed. Able to produce at least 200 metric tons of thrust (~450,000 lbf) at full throttle, Raptor is an exceptionally efficient methalox (methane/oxygen) rocket engine designed by SpaceX to power Starship and its Super Heavy booster. Methane and oxygen was chosen in large part because of the relative potential ease of its extraction and refinement on Mars.
Per Musk, that static fire could occur within the next six or so days, meaning that SpaceX will likely install a functional Raptor engine on a full-scale Starship for the first time ever within the next day or two. Before a static fire can be performed, though, another significant test or two will have to be completed.
Known as a wet dress rehearsal (WDR), the first of those tests will be similar to April 26th’s cryo proof but with the neutral liquid nitrogen placed by real liquid oxygen and methane propellant. This is much riskier than the cryo proof in the sense that if a tank failure were to occur or a fire to accidentally start, 1000+ tons of highly-pressurized propellant could easily create a massive explosion and fireball, destroying or damaging much of the surrounding pad equipment. The WDR could potentially be rolled into another Raptor engine test that would verify its preburner performance.
To operate, Raptors first take liquid oxygen and liquid methane into separate parts of the engine and rapidly heat them to turn them into high temperature gas. Those preburners then send that hot gas to separate turbopumps that spin up and allow the engines to keep supplying themselves with large quantities of propellant, followed by the process of actually igniting the engine itself with a complex series of blowtorches.
If the preburner and turbopump spin-up test is successful, SpaceX can then move on to the actual static fire. Featuring a single Raptor engine, Starship SN4 will hopefully become the first full-scale rocket to safely operate a flight-grade engine since SpaceX began full-scale tests in November 2019. If successful, that static fire could pave the way for Starship SN4 to perform a Starhopper-style 150m (500 ft) hop test as early as May 2020 – a hop that would be powered by a single Raptor engine according to Musk.
Starship SN5 will reportedly be the first ship to both have a nosecone installed and three Raptor engines installed if SN4 has a very successful few weeks and that new ship is perhaps just 5-10 days from being fully assembled. In short, things are about to get very busy and very exciting at SpaceX’s South Texas Starship factory and launch pad.