Aerospace & Defence

SpaceX tests its most powerful rocket yet!

20th February 2023
Harry Fowle

SpaceX has performed a crucial test of its new Starship rocket system, conducting a ‘static fire’ ignition of its 33 raptor engines.

Engineers at Elon Musk’s SpaceX have conducted a ‘static fire’ test of their newest, and most powerful rocket to date, the Starship. The test saw the simultaneous ignition of its 33 raptor engines on the base of the rocket system, with 31 of the 33 successfully igniting for the test duration. This, according to Musk on Twitter, was a great success that would still leave the system with “enough engines to reach orbit.” One of the engines was disabled by the team as a part of the test, and the other turned itself off as a safety measure.

The firing of the rocket, which took place at SpaceX’s research and development facility in Boca Chica, Texas, lasted a few seconds, with the base of the rocket being clamped to the launch tower to prevent movement. In case of a catastrophic failure, the upper-stage of the rocket, the ship, was removed for the test.

The most notable part of the test is the sheer number of engines successfully working together in unison. Up until this point, conventional rockets have typically gone with a smaller quantity of engines at a larger size, like NASA’s four RS-25 engines on their Space Launch System (SLS). Only one other rocket in history is comparable to this endeavour, the Soviet N1 rocket which housed 30 engines before being scrapped following its four-time failure. This should mean that the Starship will become the first successful rocket of its type.

If successful, Starship will also become the most powerful rocket in operation ever, making history upon its first lift-off. It shouldn’t be a long wait to see this happen either, with the team at SpaceX satisfied with the outcome of the recent test, Starship could potentially see its first flight in the coming weeks.

Given its recent successes, Elon Musk has high aspirations for his new vehicle, hoping that it will see considerable use in sending both manned and unmanned missions into Earth orbit and beyond it. NASA has already planned for the rocket to be used in its latest moon programme, Artemis, offering SpaceX a $4 billion contract to develop a mission-ready version to land astronauts on the moon once more.

If Starship’s maiden flight is in fact a success, it would be a game changer for space flight given its fully reusable design and improved payload capabilities. Its ability to be reused would result in immense savings when it comes to travelling to orbit and beyond, something Musk described as “the holy grail of space,” at a company event in South Texas last February.

Almost the entirety of the craft is hoped to be reusable, both the Super Heavy Booster and the ship atop it, re-landing after launch. Compared to the single-use rockets like the SLS currently in use by NASA, which cost upwards of $2.2 billion, the reusable Starship could cut costs down significantly, revolutionising the cost-effectiveness of space flights.

The payload capabilities are nothing to scoff at either, toppling the previous king of cargo, the Saturn V rocket, with a maximum payload of around 150,000kg. For comparison, NASA’s current rocket of choice, the SLS has a max payload of only two-thirds the size, capping out at 95,000kg.

This is an exciting time for rocket development, with the Starship’s future perhaps determining the future of space missions for years to come.

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