SpaceX aborts several Starship static fire attempts, rolls test tank to the pad

Still plagued by aborts and delays, Starship SN9 sits to the right of test tank SN7.2 on January 20th. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

Accidentally producing the polar opposite of Starship serial number 9 (SN9) completing a trio of Raptor ignition tests in four hours last week, SpaceX has now suffered three back-to-back static fire aborts on January 20th.

On January 13th, Starship SN9 somewhat successfully ignited its Raptor engines three separate times with zero hands-on human intervention or inspection. While an impressive feat, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk soon revealed that two of the rocket’s three engines were damaged during the test campaign. NASASpaceflight.com later reported that the company had detected an issue with one Raptor after the first three-engine static fire, ultimately firewalling it and performing the next two static fires with only two engines.

SpaceX initially allotted five days to replace the two damaged Raptors (SN44 & SN46), scheduling road closures (a telltale sign of test plans) on January 18th, 19th, and 20th. Windows on the 18th and 19th went by with zero attempts. Finally, on the 20th, SpaceX kicked off Starship SN9’s first real test attempt since the engine swap around 2pm but it was aborted by 3pm.

After an extremely brisk recycle, Starship likely made it less than a minute away from ignition but the second attempt was ultimately aborted around 3:40 pm.

Two hours later, after SpaceX extended the end of its road closure from 5pm to 8pm, Starship SN9’s third Raptor static fire attempt was also aborted – once again just a minute or less away from ignition.

SpaceX held Starship SN9 for another hour or so after the third abort but ultimately began final detanking and depressurization around 6:50 pm, marking the end of the day’s attempts.

It’s impossible to say what caused Wednesday’s back-to-back-to-back aborts or if the three instances were connected. While potentially frustrating to watch from the sidelines, it’s crucial to remember that the public is getting a truly unprecedented continuous view of SpaceX’s process of developing and refining a world-class launch vehicle. Additionally, every abort Starship suffers should theoretically produce volumes of valuable data that both Starship and Raptor teams can use to better understand how to design, build, test, and operate the cutting-edge vehicle and its engines.

More likely than not, SpaceX is leaning towards caution (and thus cautious hardware and software limits) while attempting to prepare Starship SN9 for its true data-gathering purpose – an SN8-style high-altitude launch and landing attempt.

Starship SN8’s launch and (explosive) landing debut. SN9’s goal is to replicate the feat without the last-second explosion. (Richard Angle)

SpaceX is currently scheduled to try again with another series of Starship SN9 static fire attempts between 8am and 5pm CST (UTC-6) on Thursday, January 21st.

Meanwhile, prior to SN9’s multiple Wednesday aborts, SpaceX rolled the latest in a series of Starship ‘test tanks’ from the factory to the launch pad. A team rapidly strapped the tank to the concrete pad and connected it to ground support equipment in preparation for a series of tests that will likely end with SpaceX intentionally pressurizing the tank until its bursts. If successful, it will open the door for future Starships to save weight by cutting steel skin thickness from 4mm to 3mm.

Stay tuned for updates on both active test campaigns.

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