SpaceX Starship prototype in limbo after engine test lights rocket on fire

The fate of SpaceX’s fourth full-scale Starship prototype appears to be in limbo after a third (seemingly successful) engine ignition test unintentionally caught the rocket on fire.

Now more than 12 hours after Starship SN4 fired up its new Raptor engine, the ~30m (~100 ft) tall, 9m (~30 ft) wide prototype is apparently trapped with one or both of its propellant tanks still partially filled with liquid (or gaseous) methane and/or oxygen. An initial road closure scheduled from noon to 6pm local quickly came and went and SpaceX and Cameron County Texas have since modified the paperwork, extending the closure a full 24 hours. In other words, SpaceX has reason to believe that Starship SN4 may continue to be unsafe (i.e. pressurized) as many as ~30 hours after it technically completed its third static fire test – extremely unusual, to say the least.

There’s only one obvious conclusion to draw. Whether it was something invisible to the public eye or damage related to the off-nominal fire that burned for some 15 minutes after Raptor shut down, SpaceX appears – to some extent – to have lost control of Starship SN4.

At the moment, it’s unclear what is wrong and what SpaceX is attempting to do to resolve the problem. Based on photos of Starship SN4 taken before the fire, there is good news and bad news from what can be publicly ascertained. Controlled from the ground by unprotected wires strung up and down the rocket and connected at its base, the uncontrolled fire that burned in at least two locations around Starship’s aft may have severed some or all of those critical connections.

Starship SN4’s third successful Raptor test caused a secondary fire that has put the vehicle in a state of limbo. (LabPadre)

That would render Starship – potentially perfectly healthy and operational – almost entirely uncontrollable, while also potentially removing SpaceX’s access to telemetry. In other words, the company may currently have no idea how pressurized all or part of Starship SN4 is and may also have little to no control of some or all of the rocket. For that to be true, Starship SN4 would, however, have to have less than fully redundant control hardware. To perform hops, for example, the ship would need both wired and radio links capable of sending telemetry and receiving commands to remain both on the ground and after liftoff.

It’s possible that Starship SN4 has the necessary hardware installed but that it wasn’t activated for the static fire test (think “Starship will never leave the ground, why would we need to enable wireless controls?”). It’s also possible that the blown pipe and methane leak that appeared to cause the secondary fire damaged crucial propellant management hardware (valves, pumps, etc.) or was just a symptom of an even worse overpressure event that damaged or destroyed multiple such systems.

Given that safety is almost certainly the priority, chances are that some combination of fairly mild hardware failure and telemetry/control loss has left SpaceX with just enough uncertainty that it can’t risk sending technicians to the launch site to inspect the damage and reestablish control. As a result, the only option left is to quite literally sit and wait until it’s once again safe to approach the rocket. Thankfully, at this point, the risk of the mystery problem actually destroying Starship SN4 is very low. If, as it appears, only its methane tank is affected, leaving some unknown quantity of latent liquid methane trapped inside, it’s possible that waiting will actually solve the problem and safe the rocket.

Starship SN4 is pictured a few hours before its ill-fated third static fire test. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
On a positive note, it appears that the concerning amount of dark smoke created in the first minute or two of the post-test fire was caused by a huge amount of tape/insulation/???? wrapped around part of Starship’s test stand in the hours before its May 19th test attempt.(NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

The fact that Starship hasn’t exploded yet strongly implies either that the amount of propellant trapped is minuscule or that the vast majority of SN4’s propellant management systems (including vents) remain functional. Assuming that’s the case, any remaining cryogenic propellant will eventually boil into gas, increasing the pressure inside Starship’s tanks, while those tanks will continue to vent to prevent an explosion or rupture. Eventually, Starship SN4 will be empty once again and SpaceX will be able to approach the rocket to regain control and begin inspections and repairs.

Regardless, after such an unintentionally eventful static fire test, it’s extremely unlikely that SN4 will be ready for its inaugural flight test within the next few days. Stay tuned for updates as SpaceX works to regain control over the fourth full-scale Starship prototype.

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SpaceX Starship prototype in limbo after engine test lights rocket on fire
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