In a significant milestone towards NASA's ambitious Artemis program, SpaceX has successfully completed crucial engine tests for the Starship Human Landing System (HLS) designed to land astronauts on the Lunar South Pole during the Artemis III and Artemis IV missions. The first mission is planned for 2025, it will land the first woman and next man on the Moon.
The heart of this achievement lies in the SpaceX-developed Raptor engines, with two variants specifically optimized for their roles in this lunar mission. The Raptor is fueled by cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen, also known as 'Methalox'. One variant of the Raptor is designed to function efficiently in atmospheric conditions at sea-level, while the other RVac variant is tailored to operate in the vacuum of space where no atmosphere exists. Starship is equipped with six engines, three sea-level Raptors and three vacuum-optimized which feature a much larger nozzle to maximize the engine's efficiency in space. In May, SpaceX founder Chief Engineer Elon Musk shared that the "Raptor V3 just achieved 350 bar chamber pressure (269 tons of thrust) [...] Starship Super Heavy Booster has 33 Raptors, so total thrust of 8877 tons or 19.5 million pounds," he said.
Today, SpaceX shared videos of notable Raptor engine test which demonstrated the vacuum-optimized Raptor's capabilities in conditions similar to outer space (watch video clips linked below). NASA shared that SpaceX performed the test in August –"Last month, SpaceX demonstrated a vacuum-optimized Raptor’s performance through a test that successfully confirmed the engine can be started in the extreme cold conditions resulting from extended time in space," shared NASA, "One challenge that differentiates Artemis missions from those in low Earth orbit is that the landers may sit in space without firing for an extended period of time, causing the temperature of the hardware to drop to a level below what they would experience on a much shorter low Earth orbit mission."
Raptor engine demonstration of a descent burn to the lunar surface pic.twitter.com/MbW19KFm2H— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 14, 2023
SpaceX embarked on its Artemis III contract in November 2021, marking one of the initial testing milestones with a rigorous engine test. During this 281-second-long test firing, the Raptor engine showcased its prowess in the critical powered descent phase of the mission. This phase signifies the moment when the Starship HLS departs from lunar orbit and begins its descent to the Moon's surface for a precision landing. "The test had two goals: to show Raptor’s ability to change the level of engine power over time, known as its throttle profile, and for the engine to burn the full length of time of the powered descent phase. The successful test provided NASA with early confidence in the company’s engine development," shared the agency in a September 14 press release.
Testing cutting-edge technologies and hardware under simulated and real flight conditions is imperative for the Artemis Moon lander's development. SpaceX has been testing the Starship launch system since 2019 and is getting ready to perform the second fully-integrated flight test. The company aims to achieve launching Starship to orbit before this year ends. "These tests provide early and mission-like validation of the systems necessary for carrying astronauts to and from the lunar surface. Data reviews following these tests provide NASA with continually increasing confidence in U.S. industry’s readiness for the mission. SpaceX’s Raptor engines will next be put to the test during the company’s second integrated flight test of Starship and Super Heavy," said NASA representatives.
Looking ahead, SpaceX's Raptor engines are poised for further trials during the company's second integrated flight test of the Starship and Super Heavy. During the upcoming flight attempt to orbit, the Super Heavy rocket will liftoff from Boca Chica, Texas, to propel Starship to orbit with the power of 33 Raptor V2 engines. The rocket will land in the Gulf of Mexico while Starship continues its voyage to circle Earth and complete the mission with an ocean landing off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii. The launch will mark another significant step in the journey to return humans to the Moon and beyond. Every test underscores the collaborative efforts between NASA and SpaceX in their pursuit of lunar exploration.
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A major upgrade on SpaceX’s Starship: the installation of a "hot staging" ring on the Super Heavy booster. This crucial addition, referred to as the "vented interstage," is a pivotal component of the hot-staging mechanism that SpaceX is implementing for the next orbital test… pic.twitter.com/TvbbxRQmVB— Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo (@JaneidyEve) September 13, 2023
Featured Images Source: NASA & SpaceX
About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.