Musk says Starship could be ready for orbital launch next month, but FAA review continues – Spaceflight Now – .

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Musk says Starship could be ready for orbital launch next month, but FAA review continues – Spaceflight Now – .


Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, said on Friday that the company’s huge new Starship rocket could be ready for its first orbital test launch from South Texas as early as November, but the timeline has two big uncertainties that could postpone the launch until next year. .

“If all goes well, Starship will be ready for its first orbital launch attempt next month, pending regulatory approval,” Musk tweeted.

Musk’s new schedule update came the day after SpaceX’s test of the latest Starship vehicle, known as Ship 20 or SN20, at the company’s development center near Boca Chica Beach in the east. of Brownsville, Texas. An empty Raptor engine, similar to the engines Starship will use in space, ignited for several seconds at a launch stand at SpaceX’s Starbase complex on Thursday night.

SpaceX briefly fired the privately-developed rocket again later that night.

It was the first test shot of a Raptor vacuum engine mounted on a Starship rocket. The vacuum variant of the Raptor methane-fueled engine has a larger nozzle to improve performance in the airless environment of space.

Three empty Raptor engines will fly in orbital-class spaceship missions. Three sea-level Raptor variants, with smaller nozzles, will be used for Starship’s vertical landings after they return from space.

Unlike prototypes of spacecraft stolen from recent atmospheric jumps, Ship 20 is covered with thousands of heat-resistant tiles to protect the craft’s stainless steel structure from the scorching heat it will encounter upon re-entry. the earth’s atmosphere.

The Starship will be launched on a huge reusable first stage booster called Super Heavy. Made of stainless steel, the entire stack is 120 meters high, taller than any rocket ever built.

Equipped with up to 33 Raptor engines, the Super Heavy will propel the spacecraft into space with twice the thrust of NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 moon rocket and almost double the power of the heavy rocket. of the NASA Space Launch System.

In August, SpaceX teams in South Texas briefly stacked the entire Starship rocket on a launch stand for a fit check and photo opportunity. At the time, SpaceX had connected 29 Raptor engines – four fewer than the booster used for operational flight – to the Super Heavy and rolled the booster to the ever-expanding launch complex just east of the site. of building the business.

After verifying the fit, SpaceX removed the Raptor engines from the Super Heavy, designated Booster 4, as attention turned to preparing the ship 20 for cryogenic proof-testing in September.

SpaceX then prepared Starship for its first static fire tests this week. Further test shots may take place before Ship 20 is mounted on the Super Heavy booster again.

Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to perform cryogenic proof-testing of Booster 4 in the coming weeks, likely followed by a series of test fires, culminating in a static fire with its full arsenal of Raptor engines.

Equipment for the launch tower at Boca Chica also continued from its initial construction over the summer. Earlier this week, crews raised massive arms, dubbed “wands,” over the launch tower that SpaceX aims to use to catch descendant Super Heavy boosters.

Although SpaceX has advanced at high speed in Boca Chica, the chances that the Super Heavy and Starship vehicles will be ready for flight next month are uncertain. Musk often sets ambitious timeline goals, and in September 2019 said he wanted to attempt the first orbital launch attempt with Starship within six months.

Another hurdle on the schedule could be the Federal Aviation Administration, which is examining the environmental impacts of SpaceX’s operations in South Texas. The FAA released a draft environmental report last month after consulting with several federal and state agencies.

The draft report marks a reassessment of the original FAA environmental impact statement before SpaceX began construction of the Boca Chica site in 2014. At that time, SpaceX planned to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from the South Texas, but the scope of the project has since changed to focus on the development of Starship and Super Heavy.

The FAA held public hearings on Monday and Wednesday, and some 120 people have expressed their views on the environmental impacts of the project. Public comments were more than two to one in favor of the FAA finalizing the programmatic environment assessment project and issuing SpaceX a launch license for the Starship orbital test flight.

Much support for SpaceX has come from members of the public outside of Texas. The proportion of people identifying themselves as local residents and expressing their opposition was higher.

Joyce Hamilton, who said she was a member of the local community, feared SpaceX could damage the “fragile and unique coast” of Boca Chica Beach.

“In fact, we’ve already seen the damaging impact of a recent failed launch with a large and destructive field of debris along the beach and surrounding wetlands,” Hamilton said. “I would like to end by urging the FAA to conduct a thorough and serious environmental impact assessment. “

Rebecca Hinojosa, a Brownsville resident, said SpaceX has had a destructive influence on the community through gentrification and displaced residents who once lived near the Boca Chica site. SpaceX bought out homes in the area while the facility was being built.

Others favored the FAA allowing SpaceX to move forward without delay, citing the positive economic effects of SpaceX’s presence in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Elon Musk chose our community to be the next home for his SpaceX operation, and very, very quickly after it was set up, this area grew from one of the poorest areas, one of the most despised, to all over the country … We ‘re is no longer in this position. We are now one of the most sought after postal codes for living and raising your children, ”said Jessica Tetreau, City of Brownsville Commissioner.

“I’m not just asking you,” she concluded. “Please give them this permit.” “

“When it comes to the environment, it seems to me that SpaceX has a good plan in place to mitigate the vast majority of the environmental effects of construction and test sites,” said Michael O’Halloran, who didn’t is not identified as a local. resident. “Starship and Super Heavy are clearly worth the bet. “

The FAA accepts written comments until November 1, then will determine whether to finalize the draft EA or begin a new environmental impact assessment if the environmental effects would be significant and could not be adequately mitigated. .

A new environmental impact study would take months, if not years, to be completed.

An FAA decision on which route to take is not expected immediately. The FAA said it was examining the environmental impacts of SpaceX’s spacecraft launch and reentry operations, debris recovery, the launch pad integration tower and other launch-related constructions, as well as local road closures in Boca Chica.

SpaceX cannot launch the spacecraft and super-heavy vehicle until the FAA issues a license, which will only come after the environmental process is completed.

NASA has awarded SpaceX a contract to develop a version of the Starship rocket as a human-rated lander for the agency’s Artemis lunar missions.

This contract award is currently on hold after Blue Origin, the space company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, filed a lawsuit with the United States Federal Claims Court. A decision on the trial could be made next month.

SpaceX is developing the private Starship vehicle as a fully reusable space launch and transportation system, capable of transporting more than 100 tonnes of cargo into low earth orbit, more than any other rocket in the world. SpaceX ultimately aims to develop a space-based refueling capability to extend Starship’s heavy cargo transport range into the solar system.

During an orbital launch attempt, a reusable Super Heavy first stage booster will detach from the spacecraft and return to Earth for a vertical landing. For the first orbital mission, SpaceX plans to guide the thruster to a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX is also modifying offshore oil rigs to serve as floating launch and landing platforms for Starship.

The spacecraft will continue in orbit and deploy its payloads or travel to its destination in deep space, and finally return to Earth to fly again. The Starship vehicle also serves as a top tier and rechargeable transporter to transport people and goods through space to destinations in Earth orbit, the moon, Mars, and other remote locations.

The reusable architecture, which builds on SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket, is designed to reduce the cost of each flight.

The spacecraft’s first orbital test flight, albeit on a daring scale, will aim to prove the rocket’s basic launch and reentry capabilities without fully testing the complicated landing and recovery systems, according to a file. from SpaceX to the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year. .

During the first orbital mission, SpaceX predicts that the spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere after traveling around Earth, heading for a controlled landing at sea in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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