SpaceX has finished its third full-scale Starship prototype and rolled the rocket’s tank and engine section to a nearby launch pad just a matter of weeks after work began, now ready to prepare for a potentially imminent Starhopper-style hop test.
SpaceX’s rapidly-growing Boca Chica, Texas Starship factory is now producing so much rocket hardware that it’s hard to track any single vehicle’s birth. However, it still appears that SpaceX’s Texas team managed to complete the Starship SN3 prototype in less than a month, measured from first steel ring stacking to the ship’s integrated business end being transported to the launch pad. Simultaneously, the company fabricated, assembled, and tested an entirely separate Starship test tank, verifying that a design flaw that likely lead to Starship SN1’s February 28th destruction had been rectified.
Featuring the same design improvements that allowed that Starship test tank to become the first to pass proof testing intact, Starship SN3 is the best candidate yet to kick off true wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and Raptor engine static fire testing. Both will require real liquid methane and oxygen propellant to be loaded, potentially turning Starship SN3 into the equivalent of many tons of TNT if things were to go south. To be clear, there is a significant chance that such an early, rapidly-built prototype will not survive its upcoming test campaign. Nevertheless, Starship SN3 has the numerous lessons learned from both the successes and failures of all previous vehicles built into it, giving it the best chance yet. Still, the massive rocket will need to pass one or several less risky tests before it can begin to attempt more groundbreaking feats.
Set to follow in the footsteps of all previous Starship test articles, SpaceX will soon kick off Starship SN3’s test campaign with a liquid nitrogen proof test – still extremely cold (i.e. cryogenic) but chemically neutral (i.e. can’t explode). Delivery trucks were spotted topping off SpaceX’s liquid nitrogen supplies just yesterday. The company also has a four-hour road closure scheduled to start at 5pm CDT (22:00 UTC) today, shortly after this article went live.
If it isn’t delayed, that March 29th road closure is likely meant to allow SpaceX to pressurize Starship SN3 with liquid nitrogen, pushing it beyond flight pressures (6 bar/90 psi) in what’s known as a proof test. If successful, it would verify that the rocket’s tank section is sound while also bringing it to cryogenic temperatures, potentially strengthening the steel with cryogenic hardening.
Beyond those initial plans, the FAA license SpaceX used to support Starhopper’s July and August 2019 hop tests may actually enable test flights of full-scale Starship prototypes, too. Incredibly, according to Cameron County, Texas beach closure requests made on March 23rd, SpaceX’s goal is to prepare Starship SN3 for a Raptor engine static fire test as early as April 1st (no fool), followed by a potential 150m (500 ft) Starhopper-style flight test on April 6th.
For obvious reasons, delays to that ambitious schedule – particularly the flight test – are extremely likely, but Starship SN3 is now unequivocally at the launch pad. Stay tuned for updates on the rocket’s potentially imminent proof test and the impacts that might have on future tests.