SpaceX’s first orbital Starship rocket engine is almost ready for testing

Elon Musk says that SpaceX could be just a month away from testing the first Raptor Vacuum (RaptorVac) engine, three of which are pictured burning in this Starship render. (SpaceX)

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX is “about a month away” from testing a rocket engine that will be essential for Starship and its Super Heavy booster to reach their full potential.

Known as Raptor Vacuum, the engine – as its name suggests – is a variant of the base Raptor engine optimized for maximum performance and efficiency in the vacuum of space. Although Starship could technically still function and likely reach orbit with only sea level-optimized Raptors installed, it would likely significantly limit the amount of payload it could carry into Earth orbit and would especially harm the ship’s performance to higher orbits and other planets.

Back in May 2019, Musk revealed that SpaceX had shifted gears again, forgoing a plan to begin orbital Starship flight operations with only sea level Raptors, gradually designing and phasing in RaptorVac engines much further down the road. Instead, SpaceX restarted (relatively) urgent work on the vacuum variant and Musk hinted that it would “aspirationally” be ready to support launches in the near term. A few weeks shy of a year later, Musk says that Raptor Vacuum testing could begin as early as June 2020.

A 2016 render of Raptor Vacuum. Much has changed about the engine’s design in the three years since, but SpaceX is still pursuing a vacuum variant. (SpaceX)

For a variety of reasons, even if based directly off of an existing design, vacuum-optimized engines are typically much more complex than a comparable sea level variant. While efficiency is always relatively important for rocket engine design, it becomes even more paramount when dealing with vacuum rocketry, as the entire point of a dedicated vacuum-optimized engine is to eke as much efficiency as possible out of a launch vehicle’s orbital stage(s).

A visual comparison of Merlin 1D (optimized for sea level) and Merlin Vacuum. (SpaceX)

For example, even from a purely visual perspective, Merlin Vacuum (MVac) is substantially different when compared to the Merlin 1D engine it’s based on. Due to a number of major and largely unknown differences, the engines’ shared components are largely invisible. It’s unclear how similar they are but it’s safe to say that they share at least ~50% commonality. Obviously, the most apparent part of the difference between a vacuum-optimized engine and an atmosphere-optimized engine is the bell nozzle: MVac has a nozzle that is dramatically larger than M1D.

Raptor will be no different, with the sea-level variant featuring a nozzle about 1m (3.2 ft) in diameter, whereas RaptorVac’s bell will have a diameter closer to 2.5m (~8 ft). With SpaceX’s apparent May 2019 pivot back to working on RaptorVac now, the company has been working on a dedicated vacuum variant of the high-performance methane-oxygen engine for at least a full year. Now, perhaps beginning as early as June or July, Musk suggests that the first RaptorVac engine (SN0? SN1?) is almost ready to commence static fire testing.

A Falcon 9 upper stage’s vacuum nozzle glows white hot during an orbital MVac burn. (SpaceX)
SpaceX technicians wrench on a Merlin Vacuum D (MVacD) engine. (SpaceX)
Raptor performs a static fire test in McGregor, Texas. (SpaceX)

The nature of that testing is a bit of a mystery. While it will almost certainly occur at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas test and development facilities, it’s unclear if Raptor Vacuum’s first static fire test campaign will be attempted with the engine’s extended nozzle installed. Back in October 2019, Musk suggested that yes, Raptor Vacuum version 1.0 would have a nozzle small enough to operate at sea level without destroying itself or its test facilities. With Merlin Vacuum engines, SpaceX performs acceptance tests in Texas but only without their nozzle extensions installed. If Musk’s October 2019 comments remain true, that may not be the case for RaptorVac.

Either way, it will be thoroughly interesting to note the differences between RaptorVac and its sea level-optimized predecessor if or when Elon Musk or SpaceX releases photos of their newest engine as it nears its first major tests. Simultaneously, SpaceX is also readying a sea-level Raptor for its inaugural static fire test while attached to a full-scale Starship prototype, while the first test with three Raptor engines installed could be attempted just a few weeks from now.

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