SpaceX fully-stacked Starship atop Super Heavy for Elon Musk’s presentation last week on February 10. The enormous stainless-steel launch vehicle was stacked using the launch tower’s robotic arms for the first time. It was incredible to watch the 50-meter-tall Starship SN20 spacecraft slowly being raised on to the 230-foot-tall Booster 4 prototype (video below). The vehicles are being prepared to conduct the first-ever orbital flight test attempt at Starbase this year. The company is pending approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that is performing an environmental assessment of the Boca Chica Beach, Texas, launch site. The FAA extended the assessment until March 28, which gives the company time to complete pre-flight testing and get everything ready for the first Super Heavy rocket to lift off.
The launch tower at Starbase will help stack Starship and catch the Super Heavy rocket booster pic.twitter.com/xXmonamEDA— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 11, 2022
SpaceX unstacked Starship on February 14 to continue pre-flight testing. Musk shared a video clip time-lapse of the ‘destacking’ operation. In the video shown below, we can see Starship SN20 is equipped with six methane-fueled Raptor engines as it is lifted up with the tower’s robotic arms and moved down the tower. Starship's dry mass is around 85 to 100 tons. The arms have not yet been tested to lift up the booster that likely weighs more than double that. Super Heavy Booster 4 has 29 powerful Raptors, when it lifts off it will produce over 12 million pounds of thrust! The final version of the rocket could have up to 33 upgraded engines, making it the world’s most powerful rocket right next to NASA’s Saturn V that launched astronauts to the Moon.
Destacking Starship pic.twitter.com/dUWz3uwwmb— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 14, 2022
Launch and catch tower at Starbase destacking Starship pic.twitter.com/LQPKrzbNAt— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 19, 2022
Starship SN20 was unstacked and placed on a neighboring concrete pad to undergo testing. Local South Texas residents operate a set of livestream cameras documenting the company’s Starship development progress. On February 16, venting was seen from the launch pad’s Orbital Tank Farm (OTF) which hosts the spacecraft’s cryogenic propellants – liquid oxygen and liquid methane. The company also has tanks filled with liquid nitrogen to conduct testing. Dozens of space enthusiasts speculate that SpaceX might be preparing for some testing thar involves the OTF and the plumbing that connects to the launch tower spacecraft fueling arm. Engineers did conduct another cryogenic pressure test of Starship SN20 by filling it up with liquid nitrogen. The company already performed multiple cryogenic proof tests of SN20 in the past months. Then on February 17, Starbase teams conducted a cryogenic proof test of the giant Booster 4 rocket. The pressure test(s) allows engineers to assess if the stainless-steel vehicle is strong enough to withstand the stress of spaceflight; It also serves to check if there is any leaks in the propellant tanks and overall structure.
SpaceX hopes the FAA completes the environmental assessment to apply for a flight license to perform the orbital flight soon after obtaining approval. According to a document filed last year, Booster 4 will launch Starship SN20 to orbit from South Texas and SN20 will land in the ocean off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii. SpaceX has not publicly announced (nor confirmed) that this is the flight plan but an official Federal Communications Commission (FCC) document states it is the company’s plan. “The Starship Orbital test flight will originate from Starbase, TX. The Booster stage will separate approximately 170 seconds into flight. The Booster will then perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore,” SpaceX told the FCC in the 2021 filing document, “The Orbital Starship will continue on flying between the Florida Straits. It will achieve orbit until performing a powered, targeted landing approximately 100km (~62 miles) off the northwest coast of Kauai [Hawaii] in a soft ocean landing.”
Image Source: Tesmanian.com