Starship SN15 rolls to launch site as Raptor testing ups a gear

Just days after Starship SN11 conducted a fog-cloaked test flight that ended in an explosive… The post Starship SN15 rolls to launch site as Raptor testing ups a gear appeared first on

Starship SN15 rolls to launch site as Raptor testing ups a gear

Just days after Starship SN11 conducted a fog-cloaked test flight that ended in an explosive finale, SN15 rolled down Highway 4 at SpaceX Starbase (Boca Chica). SN15 sports numerous modifications that SpaceX hopes will result in improved performance ahead of shooting for orbit along with smoother touchdowns for its prototype rocket.

One of the mostly unspecified modifications involves the engines, which are being aided by an increased test cadence at SpaceX’s McGregor test site. The center is currently constructing two additional vertical Raptor test stands to increase throughput.

SpaceX Starbase:

SN11 was the most dramatic ending to a Starship prototype flight to date, albeit without any cameras catching the explosion due to thick fog in the region.

When SpaceX’s onboard feed froze,  SN11 was moving toward the flip and landing burn of its three Raptors.’s Livestream audio caught the sound engine relight, quickly followed by the explosive boom and pieces of SN11 raining down on the launch site.

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  • Every other stage of flight, including the ascent and the bellyflop return, matched the successes of SN8 through SN10. While it was later noted that one engine struggled during the ascent, the vehicle achieved its test objectives heading toward the landing burn.

    While online rumors have ranged from issues relating to the Flight Termination System’s triggering (FTS) through to the CH4 (Liquid Methane) Header Tank exploding, it was understood the likely cause was an explosive engine failure during the re-light process that destroyed the vehicle.

    Nothing could be confirmed until Elon Musk or SpaceX release the official cause of the vehicle returning to the launch site in pieces, conclusions that were expected per Elon’s surprising and refreshing transparency with the test program.

    That came on Monday when Elon tweeted: “Ascent phase, transition to horizontal & control during free fall were good. A (relatively) small CH4 leak led to fire on engine 2 & fried part of avionics, causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump. This is getting fixed 6 ways to Sunday.”

    SpaceX workers have been spending the days following the test to clean up a large debris field, hardware that aided any outstanding conclusions into the failure in tandem with telemetry data.

    “Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn’t needed,” Elon Musk noted just hours after the failure. “Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits. Will report conclusions as soon as we know them.

    Undeterred, the loss of SN11 has not impacted the plan to push on to SN15’s test series.

    Starship SN15 is the next phase of prototype testing thanks in part to the successes with SN8 onwards – resulting in the scrapping of SN12, 13, and 14. This progression may also provide automatic mitigation of SN11’s issue.

    “It (SN15) has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software & engine,” Elon added. “Hopefully, one of those improvements covers this problem. If not, then retrofit will add a few more days.”

    SN15 rolled from the Mid Bay to the High Bay during the week, ahead of receiving its Nosecone, which has since been mated to the stack. It made the trip down Highway 4 this week, after the impressive Liebherr LR1600/2 Crawler Crane (dubbed “Tankzilla”) made the trip for the task of raising SN15 on the launch mount.

    This vehicle marks the second phase of testing for the full-stack Starship prototypes ahead of pushing on to the orbital vehicles, which is expected to open with the SN20 vehicle – as previously reported by

    “Next major technology rev is at SN20. Those ships will be orbit-capable with heat shield & stage separation system. Ascent success probability is high. However, SN20+ vehicles will probably need many flight attempts to survive Mach 25 entry heating & land intact.”

    Starship SN20 begins life with the leg skirt section spotted by Mary (@bocachicagal)

    Although Elon confirmed the orbital attempt would be as reported, with SN20 and Super Heavy BN3, the claimed target date of “by July” was always highly ambitious. The likelihood BN3 will be the Super Heavy to conduct the flight is also subject to change.

    This ever-evolving plan was confirmed when Elon noted BN1 won’t even undergo testing at the suborbital site and will be scrapped.

    Currently stacked in the High Bay, BN1 was never going to hop. However, it was expected to be proof tested – and at one point was potentially Static Fired with a couple of Raptors. While SpaceX may take the opportunity to test how to roll such a tall booster down Highway 4, it appears likely the pathfinder will likely be scrapped at the Production Site.

    “BN1 is a manufacturing pathfinder, so will be scrapped. We learned a lot, but have already changed design to BN2,” Elon noted, with the design change likely to be related to the position of the LOX and CH4 tanks in the stack.

    Amazingly, Elon added that SpaceX aims to complete the stacking of the BN2 Super Heavy booster – which is currently in sections outside the High Bay, in time to rollout and lifted on to the yet-to-be-completed Orbital Launch Site mount in a matter of weeks.

    “Goal is to get BN2 with engines on orbital pad before end of April. It might even be orbit-capable if we are lucky,” Elon added, with “orbit-capable” a highly surprising statement given his initial note about the first test of a Super Heavy originally being a 150-meter hop.

    However, whenever there is doubt in ambitious Starship schedule goals, the Production Site is on hand to add some realism via its incredible cadence. Even BN3 sections have already been spotted by Mary (@bocachicagal).

    A huge amount of work is continuing at the Orbital Launch Site, ranging from the addition of GSE (Ground Support Equipment) and commodity tanks through to the initial phase of constructing the Integration Tower that will become the tallest structure in the region when completed.

    While the plan for BN1 was to utilize one of the two suborbital mounts, the goal of placing BN2 on a mount that has yet to be completed will task engineers with installing the launch table and other associated hardware over the coming weeks amid SN15’s test campaign.

    However, SpaceX is not averse to testing vehicles while still constructing the facilities designed to host them during their operational phase.

    SpaceX McGregor:

    SpaceX’s Rocket Development and Test Facility has been an integral part of its success since it acquired the facility in 2003.

    Every new engine built at SpaceX’s factory in California passes through McGregor ahead of being sent to the launch site as a unit or as part of a rocket stage.

    The facility has grown in size during its SpaceX tenure, with the addition of numerous test stands, including the conversion of the original stalwart Falcon 9 tripod stand, which now hosts vertical Raptor testing.

    Raptor engines are also tested in two horizontal bays, with long duration testing now into the SN60 range, the engines with the cited improvements. The second Raptor Vac (RVac) was also spotted on the horizontal stand last week via NSF’s Gary Blair in the L2 McGregor section, a local who flies past the test site at around 3,000 feet AGL.

    RVac and Sea Level Raptors on the test stand via Gary Blair for NSF/L2 from his plane

    The Raptor Vacuum (RVac), with its huge nozzle, will be the engine that will provide the bulk of Starship’s propulsive power in space.

    So far, testing this engine has been progressing, with Elon recently noting, “Going well. Lot of work for an extra 20 secs of Isp!”

    Elon had previously cited the advantage of vertical testing for Raptors as one reason the Tripod was converted to hosting the Starship engine. “Testing Raptor in vertical configuration (on the giant tripod) should allow us to simplify some aspects of the engine design.”

    Soon, McGregor will have two additional vertical test stands for Raptor, with the construction of a new stand ongoing at the Texas site.

    New Raptor Test Stand via Gary Blair for NSF/L2 from his plane

    The new Raptor stand has an underground diverter, and each of the vertical test bays will be available for testing both sea-level and vacuum-optimized Raptors.

    Importantly, it will also cater to the future demand for Raptor engines, which will exponentially increase during the early phase of Super Heavy testing.

    Super Heavy will eventually sport 28 Raptor engines. While the goal will be to return all the engines on the fully reusable launch system, SpaceX will be prepared to ensure Raptor availability is in tune with the potential loss of engines during the early phase of full-stack test flights.

    This article will be updated during the test week for SN15. For live updates, follow NASASpaceFlight’s Twitter account and the NSF Starship Forum Sections.

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    Soyuz MS-18 launch marks 60 years of human spaceflight

    The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft, carrying three new members for Expeditions 64 and 65, is currently… The post Soyuz MS-18 launch marks 60 years of human spaceflight appeared first on

    Soyuz MS-18 launch marks 60 years of human spaceflight

    The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft, carrying three new members for Expeditions 64 and 65, is currently awaiting launch to the International Space Station at 07:42 UTC, which is 03:42 EDT or 12:42 local time at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on Friday, April 9. 

    The launch comes three days before the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s groundbreaking orbital flight when he became the first member of the human race to reach space.

    Fanfare and celebrations will mark the occasion, as does the name given to this Soyuz spacecraft — an exceptionally rare event for the Russian space program which usually does not bequeath individual names to their spaceships (though callsigns chosen by crewmembers are standard for Russian crew flights).

    For Soyuz MS-18, Roscosmos has named the Soyuz spacecraft , and while the flight will not lift off from Site 1/5 as Gagarin did 60 years ago, it will launch from neighboring Site 31/6 at the same cosmodrome.

    Gagarin’s launch pad hosted its final launch on September 25, 2019 with Soyuz MS-15. The pad was not upgraded to support the Soyuz-2 rocket over the previous Soyuz-FG variant which flew from the site.

    A plan to reconfigure Site 1/5 for Soyuz-2 has been developed, with Dmitry Rogozin stating in June 2020 he hoped to complete negotiations on the modernization work soon.

    Overall, Soyuz MS-18 will be the 146th launch of a crewed Soyuz spacecraft, which began human flight operations on April 23, 1967 with the first generation of the craft. Soyuz (spacecraft) has since undergone numerous upgrades and improvements, with the MS-series of crew vehicles being the current variant.

    Liftoff of this mission is timed for exactly 07:42:41 UTC, 03:42:41 EDT, the exact and only second on April 9 that Earth’s rotation brings Baikonur to a point in relation to the Station’s orbital plane to allow the Soyuz (rocket) to lift off and exactly 8 minutes 44 seconds later at orbit insertion and engine shutdown have placed itself directly into the center of the Station’s orbital plane.

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  • This precise choreography sets up a super-fast 3-hour, two orbit rendezvous with the Station, greatly reducing the time the three crewmembers have to spend in transit to their destination.

    After lifting off from Site 31/6, the Soyuz 2.1a rocket launching the mission will roll and pitch downrange, heading east-northeast out of Baikonur into a 51.6 degree inclination orbit. 

    Flights from Baikonur to the ISS must fly this route to avoid land overflight and potential in-flight abort landings in Mongolia and the People’s Republic of China. The need to avoid overflight of those countries is what drove the decision to place the International Space Station into a 51.6 degree orbit in the 1990s.

    After a successful launch and automated rendezvous, Soyuz MS-18 is scheduled to dock to the Station’s Rassvet module at 11:07 UTC, 07:07 EDT. 

    Location of the International Space Station in relation to Baikonur at the time of Soyuz MS-18’s planned launch. (Credit: GoISSWatch App)

    After physical capture, a series of hooks will drive from Soyuz into the ISS to form a hard dock, after which the vestibule between the crafts will be pressurized ahead of hatch opening.

    With docking, there will be 10 people aboard the International Space Station until Soyuz MS-17 departs for a landing in Kazakhstan on April 16.

    The Crew:

    Cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky of Roscosmos, a veteran of Soyuz TMA-06M/ISS Expedition 33/34 and Soyuz MS-03/ISS Expedition 50/51 with 340 cumulative days in space, is the Commander of the Soyuz.

    He is joined by rookie cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov, serving as the flight engineer. 

    A late addition to the crew was NASA astronaut and retired US Army Colonel Mark Vande Hei, a veteran of the 168 day Soyuz MS-06/ISS Expedition 53/54 mission.

    The Soyuz MS-18 crew was originally supposed to be all-Russian, with Novitsky, Dubrov joined by Sergey Korsakov — with Anton Shkaplerov, Andrey Babkin (originally), and Dmitry Petelin as the backup crew.

    Oleg Novitsky, after helping Shane Kimbrough (left) and Thomas Pesquet (right) into their spacesuits. (Credit: NASA)

    However, NASA sought to obtain a supplemental seat aboard a Soyuz to guarantee at least one US crew member aboard ISS in the event of any problems which would keep Crew Dragon or Starliner on the ground for a prolonged period.

    This led to a barter agreement between NASA and Roscosmos to fly an American astronaut on the Soyuz MS-18 mission in exchange for Russian cosmonauts flying aboard the US Commercial Crew vehicles to the ISS. 

    Vande Hei thus replaced Korsakov as prime crew member for MS-18 and US Army Lt. Col Anne McClain became Vande Hei’s backup in place of Petelin.

    Even before the crew swap was agreed, the Soyuz MS-18 backup crew was changed due to medical issues with Babkin, who was replaced by Oleg Artemyev. 

    Soyuz MS-18 is scheduled to return to Earth on October 13 following more than 180 days in space. However, unlike the vast majority of Soyuz crew missions to the Station since 2003, Vande Hei and Dubrov will not return with the craft they launched on.

    Instead, Roscosmos will launch Soyuz MS-19 no earlier than October 5 with Commander Anton Shkaplerov and two civilian spaceflight participants. Russian film director Klim Shipenko and a Russian actress, who is yet to be named, will film a movie called “The Challenge” and spend approximately a week aboard the ISS before returning to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-18 with Novitsky. 

    Pyotr Dubrov. (Credit: NASA)

    Vande Hei and Dubrov will therefore have an extra long-duration mission that will last into early 2022 before they and Shkaplerov return to Earth on Soyuz MS-19, with that landing currently planned for March 28, 2022.

    This planned timeline means Vande Hei and Dubrov will spend 353 days in orbit. For comparison, the “Year In Space” mission of Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko lasted 340 days.

    The long-duration increment

    During Expedition 65, the Soyuz MS-18 crew will be joined in late-April by the crew of SpaceX’s Crew-2 mission, consisting of NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough (Commander) and Megan McArthur (Pilot) as well as Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide (Flight Engineer) and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet (Flight Engineer).

    Crew-2 and Soyuz MS-18 will both deliver the full Expedition crew of seven to the Station, who will take over from the current seven occupants. During the following half year, the crew will be busy conducting numerous experiments in many scientific disciplines. Among these are cotton root system studies, a tech demonstration of a portable ultrasound device, and studies on amyloids that can cause Alzheimer’s disease.

    The Russian crewmembers will also oversee the long-planned departure of the Pirs docking compartment and subsequent arrival of the new Nauka multipurpose laboratory module — which will mark the first Russian modular addition to the Station since Shuttle Atlantis delivered the Rassvet module in May 2010.

    To accommodate Nauka’s arrival, Pirs will first be deorbited by the Progress MS-16 spacecraft in order to clear the port on the Zvezda module that Nauka needs to dock to.

    Nauka will then be launched with a European Robotic Arm atop a Proton-M rocket no earlier than July 15 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

    It is possible, based on current schedules, that Pyotr Dubrov may also see an addition to Nauka in the form of the Prichal module, which is currently scheduled for launch no earlier than November 24, 2021.

    The Soyuz MS-18 mission, as the first crewed launch of 2021, marks the start of a busy and eventful time in the history of the International Space Station and of human spaceflight, with up to nine launches carrying human beings scheduled for this year from Kazakhstan, the United States, and China.

    (Lead image: The Soyuz 2.1a rocket with Soyuz MS-18 on the launch pad at Baikonur. Credit: Roscosmos)

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