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SpaceX prepares SuperHeavy's maiden flight for 2023

NASA requires the company to present a functional rocket and spacecraft to move forward with the Artemis project

Booster 7 and Ship 24 stacked on OLM, Starbase. Photo: Carlos Nunez

SpaceX has been promising the start of flights of its Starship/Superheavy system to launch heavy payloads into low orbit and for flights to the Moon and Mars since the launch base in Texas was ready. CEO Elon Musk and the most optimistic part of the engineers, was to test fly the Superheavy 'booster' 7 (or B7) rocket with the Starship spacecraft'Ship 24' by March 2023. Until the middle of the year, the company was trying to speed up the assembly and configuration of the rocket/ship set and in the reconditioning of the parts that had been used in the electrical and mechanical tests. The reason was that NASA established the condition that the launcher's reliability should still be proven at SpaceX's facilities in Starbase at Boca Chica, Texas: For the American space agency, it would take several successful launches of the rocket – both in suborbital tests, tests in fractional orbit and tests in orbit; Only then would SpaceX have a clear path to transport entire blocks and the spacecraft to platform 39A, where the traditional Apollo/Shuttle platform had already been renovated for Falcon 9 launches in both cargo and crew versions.

Photo Journal by Carlos Nunez

The work of mitigating risks

At its home base in Texas, SpaceX is focusing on mitigating the risk of failure in its first flight tests – a possibility accepted as highly likely by engineers. So technicians are running successive static test operations to minimize this risk as much as possible. Throughout the second half of the 2022, both the spacecraft and its rocket, as well as the launch facilities themselves, received equipment completions. The service tower and umbilical, with recovery arms and umbilical bridges being fitted with updated versions of fittings, ducts and piping. The ground support system, with the methane, nitrogen and liquid oxygen tanks and their feed pumps and electrical installations.

Orbital Launch Mount of Starbase, Photo: Carlos Nunez

Progress on the Rocket in Boca Chica

At the company's test facility, the Raptor engine was tested on the tripod test stand to check an electric motor thrust vector control system. This control system (' gimball' or tilt) uses the engine's own thrust to steer the rocket in flight, dispensing with auxiliary and vernier engines for heading, yaw and roll - although there are cold gas engines for fine maneuvers. In the 'booster', it is expected that some of the engines will have coupled an electric generator powered by gas bleed from the engine's turbomachinery. Simply connect this electrical system to some of the motors to provide power to move all the nozzles equipped with actuators on the periphery of the motor bay. This is done without compromising the ability to quickly remove and replace the engine in the event of a defect (the electrical power generation equipment is not part of the engine block). Blankets and thermal insulators are being fitted between each individual engine compartment.

The work done over the last few months has focused on pre-launch activities for Booster 7. Booster 9 is destined to go to the cryostat station for compatibility testing. The spacecraft Ship 24 was used for the static ignition tests of the engines, aiming at an assembly (connection of the spacecraft with the rocket) and its complete fueled test (the so-called wet dress rehearsal, or WDR) likely happening in upcoming week. If the static tests of the B7 are successful, the company will look forward for the actual launch will be possible in six to eight weeks if all goes well with booster 7. Single engine static test data for Ship 24 apparently proved satisfactory, while plans were made to re-ignite six engines prior to the orbital attempt. , to ensure that the damage from the last six-engine test was corrected. Booster 8 is paired with the Ship 25 spacecraft.

A launch attempt in the first quarter would be important for SpaceX to confirm the viability of its project, especially with a view to using the Starship as a landing craft for NASA's Project Artemis , but in fact few think that the flight will take place in the second quarter of 2023.

Starship in Florida

As for construction progress on the launch pad for SuperHeavy at Cape Canaveral, work is on schedule. Company officials believed it would be possible to assemble the spacecraft and rocket on the 39A platform zone for fit verification in the first quarter of 2023, using experience gained at Starbase. A reconfiguration of the crane, the umbilical arm of the Starship engine bay, has already been carried out, so that it can be used for the assembly and finalization of the capture arms. The annular sound and vibration suppression system is also being assembled on the circular launch table. The equipment for the upgrade was already arriving in Florida when work in Boca Chica was focused on static tests, and the stacking and storage of beams, pipes, iron, inputs and equipment is already piling up on site. Although, the Starship will only arrive at platform 39A after the examples that are in Starbase prove their reliability. Meanwhile, accessory parts of the ship's structure Ship 28 were brought to Boca Chica, where the installation, assembly and test facilities allow to lift the Starship with a crane that was adapted to suspend the ship based on bearings mounted on thefront canards , without the use of hooks that interfere with the thermal protection tiles.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and NASA continue to consider an upgrade of the SLC-40 platform at Cape Canaveral (leased by the US Air Force to Musk's company) to launch Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon missions to the international space station, once the Deck work for Starship is apace in zone 39A.