SpaceX Is Assembling The New Super Heavy Prototype That Will Put Starship In Orbit

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First photos of the machine taken on the Boca Chica website, released by the media Teslarati, suggest that construction is well and truly underway. This booster, called BN3, will be the first prototype to propel the Starship into an orbital flight, which could take place within the next six months.

As a reminder, the two previous prototypes, BN1 and BN2, did not undergo test flights. After last-minute design changes (mostly to the layout of the fuel tanks), the BN1 assembled in March was finally used as a production test, but also to gain the experience needed to assemble this monster. BN2, elements of which have been seen in recent days, was never assembled; it appears to be converted into a small test tank to qualify the thrust dome and engines.

BN3 should therefore be the first prototype to put the Starship spacecraft into orbit. With 70 meters high and 9 meters in diameter, it will be powered by 28 Raptor engines, powered by a mixture of liquid oxygen and methane. The structure as a whole – the Super Heavy topped by the Starship – will reach 120 meters in height. A machine that will certainly not go unnoticed…

A “Soft” Landing in Hawaii

After the recent launch of SN15, which successfully completed a 10-kilometer round trip, SpaceX is pursuing its ambitious goal: to one day send its Starship spacecraft on a mission to Mars. To put the latter into orbit, it developed a super-heavy launcher, the Super Heavy, whose third prototype appears to be under construction. In any case, several elements of the reinforcement have been seen at the Boca Chica location in recent weeks.

Hidden behind SN16, we can see BN3 inside High Bay. © Mary (@bocachicagal) for NASASpaceFlight.com

Another proof of an upcoming test: SpaceX has submitted an order to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to obtain temporary clearance to communicate with its two machines during an orbital test flight. The latter should take place within the next six months, starting on June 20.

A document filed with the FCC also outlines the details of the test: the two elements, the Super Heavy and the Starship, are expected to separate approximately 170 seconds after liftoff. The booster is expected to make a partial return and then drop into the Gulf of Mexico, about 30 kilometers offshore. The spacecraft will continue its journey into orbit, for about 90 minutes, eventually landing “softly in the ocean” about 100 kilometers off the northwest coast of Kauai, Hawaii. Thus, neither will return to the launch site.

The BN3’s thrust dome and engine section look almost complete. © NASASpaceflight – bocachicagale

But before that, SpaceX must proceed with the assembly and preliminary tests of the BN3 and SN20. The latter should undergo some important technological changes in relation to its predecessors, namely in terms of the thermal shield and the phase separation system.

A potential second flight of the starship SN15

On the BN3 side, it looks like the engine section and thrust dome are almost complete: Teslarati reports that the dome has 28 cutouts at its base, presumably intended to power each of the launcher’s 28 Raptor engines (for comparison, starship prototypes only had three engines of the same type). Something resembling a fuel collector also appeared at the construction site; this collector must be connected to a huge tube, also seen at the construction site, in charge of transporting the methane to the liquid oxygen tank.

Photograph of a probable fuel collector for the Super Heavy. © NASASpaceflight – bocachicagale)

However, there is still much work to be done. While many of the components look ready to assemble, these different sections only make up about 20% of the launcher’s total height. About 30 additional sections still need to be added to the structure, with the aim of having a complete and operational BN3 by June 20. Of course, SpaceX is unlikely to conduct a first orbital flight test this summer; the BN3 will really have to go through a lot of testing before getting its flight permit from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Comparison of different common spaceships/launchers. On the left, the Starship in its Super Heavy launcher (total height: 120 meters). © u/wxpuck

In late March, Elon Musk said in a tweet that “ the probability of successful ascent is high “. However, SpaceX’s own CEO acknowledges that this orbital flight will undoubtedly require several tests before the spacecraft can withstand its entry into the atmosphere and land safely.

Pending the BN3 tests, the SN15 is due to make a second flight – the first of a Starship prototype. The machine has just been relocated to a launch pad for inspection and possible new flight.

Source: NASASpaceFlight.com

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