Update: In a Twitter response to Teslarati’s report, Musk confirmed that SpaceX has already installed six telescoping landing legs on the Starship SN3 prototype.
CEO Elon Musk published new photos of a Starship prototype shortly after it was moved to SpaceX’s South Texas launch pad, revealing the surprise inclusion of already-installed landing legs and hinting at the growing maturity of the rocket’s design.
Published on March 30th and likely taken late on March 29th, Musk’s latest Starship photos offer the best look yet at the massive vehicle’s engine section, where Raptor engines may soon be installed for historic static fire and hop test attempts. First captured in photos taken by local photographer and resident Mary (bocachicagal) on March 28th, speculation about what appeared to be six odd legs immediately kicked off on spaceflight forums. Due to limited publicly-available perspectives and the appendages’ locations inside Starship’s cavernous engine section, there was some limited ambiguity as to whether the steel pieces were truly legs or something closer to general structural support.
Thankfully, Musk’s new photos all but confirmed the former theory, revealing a sextet of hinged legs with a curious stubby appearance and what appears to be a rather simple and elegant design. Most importantly, the unexpected presence of landing legs – while likely cheap to implement – suggests that SpaceX is growing increasingly confident in each subsequent Starship prototype, an encouraging sign for imminent static fire and hop test plans.
In fact, SpaceX filed a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on March 30th — the biggest confirmation yet that the company is seriously working to prepare Starship SN3 for a Raptor engine static fire test as early as April 1st. Backup dates on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th are included, leaving a decent amount of breathing room for SpaceX’s Texas team to (hopefully) successfully complete the rocket’s proof test in the next few days.
Possibly preceded by a water pressure test to check for leaks and verify general structural integrity, Starship SN3’s proof test will see the rocket’s methane and oxygen tanks fully filled with cryogenic liquid nitrogen. The tank pressure would then be increased to around 6-8 bar (90-115 psi) to ensure that Starship can handle the thermal and pressure stresses it will experience during launches. Given SpaceX’s recent history, including a partially unintentional Starship Mk1 tank failure in November 2019, the intentional destruction of two Starship test tanks in January 2020, and Starship SN1’s unintentional February 2020 failure, success is still far from guaranteed for Starship SN3.
Nevertheless, SpaceX seems more confident in Starship SN3 than it was in Starships Mk1 and SN1 – the only other full-scale prototypes to have reached the testing phase. It’s possible that including leg prototypes were cheap and easy enough to be worth installing regardless of SpaceX’s broader confidence in Starship SN3 as a whole. However, it would still be a clear waste of time and resources to install all six landing legs if the internal consensus was to expect a failure in the early phases of SN3 testing.
SpaceX, in other words, seems to believe that Starship SN3 will pass its imminent tank proof test without any major issues. Additionally, the company must be confident in the outcome of the Starship SN3 Raptor static fire(s) expected to immediately follow any successful proof test. SpaceX has successfully demonstrated Raptor several times on flight hardware with the help of the Starhopper development vehicle, but a full-scale Starship is arguably a different animal.
Regardless, it’s now clearer than ever that SpaceX is confident enough to put a few eggs in the Starship SN3 basket. With landing legs installed, the massive rocket prototype could be ready for a Starhopper-style 150m (500 ft) hop test just a week or so from now. For now, though, Starship SN3 needs to pass a tank proof test, perform a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) with real propellant, and complete one or several Raptor static fires before a flight test will be in its cards. Stay tuned!