Update: SpaceX is included in the first Starship SN15 cryogenicity test and is in the process of loading the upgraded steel rocket with hundreds of tons of supercooled liquid nitrogen (LN2).
As a result, the 50-foot-tall (165-foot) spacecraft and prototype from the upper stage have developed a frost coating, as its extremely cold cargo literally freezes the humid air of South Texas on its steel skin. Stay tuned for updates on the Starship SN15’s performance during its first “cryo-resistant” and what this means for engine installation and its next big test – a triple Raptor static fire.
SpaceX has vacated its suborbital launch site in South Texas from all personnel, clearing the way for Starcraft serial number 15 (SN15) to begin the first of a series of major tests.
Equipped with “hundreds” of improvements over its late full-size predecessors SN8, SN9, SN10 and SN11, SN15 has a chance to hold the key to the first fully successful launch and landing of SpaceX at high altitude.
Although Starship SN10 managed to land in one track last month, both of its three siblings successfully reached nominal highs of 10-12.5km (6-8 miles), averaged more than six minutes of controlled flight and restarted at least one of three Raptor engines without a problem, the SN10 exploded minutes after touching, and the other ships suffered various damage 10-30 seconds before landing. At least one loss of a vehicle (Starship SN9) can be blamed on the failure of one of the two Raptor engines to start properly.
Starship SN8 did it seconds from an intact touchdown on the first try, before a problem with its advanced pressure system smoothed out its Raptor engines with fuel. The SN10 landed heavily – partly leading to its death – as the rapid correction of SpaceX, applied to deal with pressure problems, surfaced, causing Raptor engines to absorb helium, drastically reducing their thrust and performance. CEO Elon Musk believes the SN11’s even earlier death was caused by a high-pressure methane leak on a Raptor engine that destroyed the avionics and led to a severe start and a strong explosion during combustion ignition.
Although many – if not most – of the countless Starship SN15 upgrades probably began before most of the SN8-SN11’s failure modes were revealed, it’s unlikely that SpaceX already knew about the potential vulnerabilities and worked to address them. The company’s philosophy largely corresponds to the agile development popular in the software industries – namely the development of a minimally viable product, followed by a cycle of iterative testing and refinement until a product reliably achieves all major goals.
It now depends on Starship SN15 (as well as SN16, SN17, SN18 and possibly SN19) to carry the torch forward and demonstrate clear progress towards the goal of deploying a reliable, reusable spacecraft with a large size and upper stage. To do this, the SN15 must first act as a guide for these improvements, starting with ground qualification tests.
The first of them – probably a cryogenic test with liquid nitrogen – is scheduled today, somewhere between now and 20:00 CDT (UTC-5). Stay tuned for updates as Starship SN15 (hopefully) gets icy for the first time.