Featured Image Source: @LabPadre via Twitter
The SpaceX facility located at Boca Chica Beach in South Texas, is in the process of developing the most ambitious space vehicle, a massive stainless-steel Starship that could one day carry one hundred passengers to the moon, Mars and beyond. The rocket company aims to manufacture many Starship prototypes to test-out different features. A high production and iteration rate can provide engineers insight towards building a space-ready craft. This week, SpaceX conducted pressurization tests on a third Starship prototype referred to as, SN3. The craft incorporated changes learned from testing previous vehicles. On Wednesday night (April 1), engineers conducted a pressure test at ambient temperature with nitrogen. After the test, the founder and chief engineer at SpaceX said, "SN3 passed ambient temperature pressure test last night, now doing cryogenic." That same evening they attempted to conduct a pressurization test at cryogenic temperatures but the test was aborted due to valves leaking, "Some valves leaked at cryo temp. Fixing & will retest soon," Musk shared via Twitter. A cryogenic pressure test involves loading the vehicle with super-chilled liquid nitrogen. During the test, the craft is pressurized to the max, as engineers inspect for leaks and hope the stainless-steel structure withstands a pressure strength between 6 and ~8.5 bar. This test aims to put the vehicle into conditions that it would experience during flight.
SN3 passed ambient temperature pressure test last night, now doing cryogenic— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 2, 2020
Engineers fixed the valve issue throughout the day and prepared it for the next test. By Thursday night (April 2), they initiated the cryogenic pressure test on Starship SN3. The vehicle was loaded again with chilled nitrogen but at about 2:00 a.m. CDT. (local time) SN3 collapsed during the pressure test. Local residents set up cameras at Boca Chica Beach, which captured the moment in which Starship SN3 is releasing white vapor clouds as it collapsed [video below]. Musk says that the destructive test might have been caused by "a test configuration mistake."
"We will see what data review says in the morning, but this may have been a test configuration mistake."
We will see what data review says in the morning, but this may have been a test configuration mistake— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 3, 2020
Even though a destructive test seems like a bad thing, its worth noting that Starship is in its early phase of development - as tests fail, engineers investigate what went wrong to learn by trial and error how to improve the craft. Now, the company will move-on to their next prototype, Starship SN4, which will go through the same process. Musk had previously mentioned that he expects to manufacture at least 20 Starship prototypes featuring minor changes to test out this year. The future prototype that passes all pressurization tests, will be the one that will conduct a 150 meter test flight. The company has not conducted a flight with a fully-assembled vehicle yet. Last year, they successfully conducted a 150 meter test flight with a scaled-down version of the craft, called Starhopper. Starhopper only utilized the power of a single Raptor, Starship SN# is expected to be fully-assembled and take flight with three Raptor engines.
Starhopper. Source: SpaceX
SpaceX has an ambitious timeline to finish developing a space-ready Starship because a private customer is funding its development. Yusaku Maezawa, a fashion entrepreneur, booked the first flight scheduled for 2023. The first crewed mission will be a circumlunar voyage to the moon, approximately 238,900 miles away from Earth. Maezawa dreams of inviting artists on a space tour to turn it into an art project named Dear Moon. "I would like to invite six to eight artists from around the world to join me on this mission to the Moon. These artists will be asked to create something after they return to Earth, and these masterpieces will inspire the dreamer within all of us," he says. According to a user guide SpaceX published earlier this week, Starship will be able to accommodate up to one hundred passengers with "private cabins, large common areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters and a viewing gallery."