Space Sunday: starships, helicopters and rockets

A camera close to the landing zone captures Starship SN15 with two good Raptor motor burns bringing it into a safe landing on May 5th. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has achieved its first successful landing of a Starship prototype after Starship SN15 was launched on May 5th, 2021.

The vehicle was the fifth full-scale prototype of the vehicle SpaceX intends to use on missions to Mars – and so much more – with the previous four, prototypes SN8, SN9, SN10 and SN11 all having suffered failures of various descriptions: SN8 came in too “hot” blowing up as it hit the landing pad; SN9 encountered motor issues that lead to being unable to remain upright so it also crashed into the landing pad; SN10 actually made a touch-down, but issues with one of its motors meant it blew up shortly afterwards; and SN11 exploded prior to landing after encountering issues when re-starting its Raptor motors.

Just before launch, Starship SN15 on the launch stand, venting excess vapours. The structure to the left is a test rig that is being used to simulate the dynamic stresses the forward section of an unladen Starship will face during atmospheric entry. Credit: SpaceX

SN15, however, is a substantially different vehicle to those. As the first of the “next generation” prototypes, it includes multiple updates and improvements throughout – including flying with the very latest iteration of the Raptor motors. Proof of this came in the run-up to the flight, when SN15 completing all its pre-flight tests without a significant issue – unlike the earlier models.

The vehicle lifted-off at 23:24 UTC, rapidly vanishing into low-altitude cloud as it climbed to the expected altitude of 10 kilometres, where it flipped into a horizontal skydiving descent. Just over 6 minutes after lift-off, the roar of the three Raptor engines re-starting reverberated through the clouds before the vehicle re-appeared in a tail-fist descent on  two of the three engines to complete a successful landing.

Starship SN15 on the landing pad, post-flight. The fire around the engine skirt is visible, and the fire suppression system can be seen dousing the area in water. Credit: SpaceX

Following landing, a small fire was visible at the base of the vehicle – the result of excess methane venting, and an issue SpaceX will need to address. However, it was clear that SN15 was safely down on the ground and “safing” procedures could commence.

Despite the atmospheric conditions, the team at team (this is not an official NASA group) had a number of video cameras placed around the SpaceX facilities at Boca Chica, Texas, and following the flight, they edited the footage from those cameras together to show the lift-off and landing sequences from different angles, some with the audio delay created by the distance of the camera from the launch stand edited out.

Some of these clips bring home the raw power of the Raptor engines – seconds after ignition, the shockwave of sound from the three engines on the Starship starts the camera vibrating – a small demonstration of what is to come when a Super Heavy / Starship combination lifts-off with no fewer than 28 of these engines firing simultaneously.

Following the flight, some pundits were forecasting SN15 could be set to make a second flight, possibly in short order – an idea fuelled be Elon Musk. This seems unlikely, as SpaceX will doubtless want to carefully examine the vehicle to learn all that they can from it prior to attempting to fly it a second time – if, indeed, they do.

All six of SN15’s landing legs suffered severe damage, as shown in this image, possibly the result of lateral loads placed on the vehicle on landing. Credit: SpaceX

As it is, the the landing legs – and possibly the base of the vehicle as well – suffered considerable damage during the “nominal” landing, as the image to the right shows.

Thought to be the result of lateral loading – the vehicle may have skidded sideways on touch-down – the damage is further evidence that SpaceX needs to seriously re-think how landing legs are mounted and deployed.

This is something the company his indicated it would be doing – and images of the proposed Starship Human Landing System (HLS) points to the direction in which they may move – although Musk has also floated the idea of eventually discarding any landing legs, and “catching” returning Starships via a launch tower, a-la his idea for Super Heavy – an idea that will presumably only apply to those Starships intended to operate no further than Earth orbit.

The next vehicle in the fleet that is likely to fly will be SN16, The legs on SN15 are the same as those on the earlier SN8-SN11 vehicles, and they are slated to be replaced by a more robust system,  and the degree of damage they suffered either as a result of a heavier touch-down or a possible lateral load being placed on the legs as a result of the vehicle “sliding” as it touched down. Either way, this damage along means that SN15 is unlikely to re-fly soon (although that doesn’t mean it won’t re-fly at some point).

As it stands, SN16 is now fully stacked and ready for transfer to a launch stand in order to have its Raptor engines fitted in preparation for a flight – this transfer could take place as soon as the coming week.

It is unclear how many more Starship launches will occur in the short-term: SpaceX is attempting to carry out an orbital launch of a Super Heavy Booster and an unladen Starship in July. Given the state of preparations – the company has yet to produce a fully flight-ready Super Heavy (Booster Number 1 has been scrapped, and work appears to have ceased on BN2 and BN2.1, leaving only BN3 under assembly at the moment), plus the orbital launch facilities are still under construction. Thus, unless attention and resources are significantly further shifted to booster development and testing, that July date seems to be highly ambitious.

Ingenuity Says ‘Farewell’ to “Wright Brothers Field”

On  Friday, May 7th, 2021, the Mars helicopter drone Ingenuity completed its 5th of five pre-planned test flights. In doing so, the little 1.8 Kg helicopter both set a new record and commenced a new phase in its mission.

During this flight, Ingenuity initially rose to the “usual” altitude of 5 metres, then said “farewell” to its operational based of “Wright Brother’s Field”, and headed south for a distance of  129 metres before coming to a hover. It this ascended further – climbing to 10 metres to take high-resolution of the area around itself, before descending to a landing in a flight lasting a total of 108 seconds.

The new landing site was selected on the strength of images gathered during the 4th flight for Ingenuity. It lies fairly close to the path the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will follow as it now commences its science operations in earnest. The initial plans for the rover do not require it to make long-haul drives, but rather investigate the area to the south of the mission’s landing site, and this will allow the Ingenuity team to carry out further flights that can both further test their vehicle and allow them to potentially assist the rover team by scouting possible places of interest for the rover to explore.

Overall, Ingenuity is in fair better shape than had been expected at this point in its flight regime: the solar collectors are working optimally, the battery system is providing more than enough energy to both power the little vehicle and to keep it warm during the harsh Martian nights.

The plan forward is to fly Ingenuity in a manner that does not reduce the pace of Perseverance science operations. We may get a couple more flights in over the next few weeks, and then the agency will evaluate how we’re doing. We have already been able to gather all the flight performance data that we originally came here to collect. Now, this new operations demo gives us an opportunity to further expand our knowledge of flying machines on other planets.

– Bob Balaram, Ingenuity Chief Engineer, NASA/JPL

Prior to the 5th flight, NASA issued an audio recording captured by Perseverance of Ingenuity’s 4th flight – something the mission teams had been hoping to do.

The recording is a fascinating demonstration of the difference in how sound travels on Mars compared to Earth. Given the speed the rotors on Ingenuity spin (2400 rpm), one might expect the helicopter to generate the same high-pitched whine common to radio control helicopters on Earth. However, as the recording reveals, the less-dense atmosphere of Mars reduces the motor sounds from Ingenuity to a low-pitched hum. When listening, also note the doppler shift created by the drone’s motion away from, and back towards, the rover.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: starships, helicopters and rockets”

Space Sunday: Mars, galaxies and starships

 Mars 2020 mission Sol 46 (April 6th), 2021, a series of 62 images captured using the WATSON imager on the robot arm of the Perseverance rover were used to create this “selfie” of the rover “looking” at the camera, then back at the Ingenuity helicopter sitting on the ground some 4 metres away. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA has delayed the first flight of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars after the vehicle detected an issue during one of its pre-flight tests.

For the past week, the agency has been preparing the little helicopter drone, part of the Mars 2020 mission, for the first of a series of 5 pre-planned test flights within Jezero Crater. It had been hoped the flight could take place on Sunday April 11th / Monday April 12th, 2021 (depending on where you are in the world); however it will now not take place until Wednesday, April 14th at the earliest.

After being dropped on the surface of Jezero Crater by the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover (see my previous space Sunday report), Ingenuity successfully recharged its batteries using solar energy and survived its first night alone on Mars without incident. This was a major milestone for the project, as there were fears that if the batteries couldn’t be fully charged and generate sufficient heat, the extreme cold of the Martian night could freeze the vehicle’s electronics, and even crack the batteries themselves.

Since that first night, the helicopter has shown it can keep itself warm and the flight team has spent the week conducting a range of pre-flight checks, including unlocking Ingenuity’s pair of contra-rotating propellers and then testing them under power and at low speeds, then speeding up to higher speeds, including an attempt to reach the 2400 rpm required for take-off.

Part of testing Ingenuity included taking a low-resolution image via its downward-looking camera system while it was still sitting under the rover. April 3th, 2021 / Sol 42. Credit NASA/JPL
All of these tests were completed successfully, with the exception of the final full-speed test attempted on Friday, April 9th. This aborted during the phase when the command programme on Ingenuity was supposed to switch from “pre-flight” to “flight” mode, as will be required ahead of the actual flights. However, a guardian “watchdog” timer designed to oversee the correct execution of command sequences expired before the switch-over occurred, prompting Ingenuity to safely shut-down its motor and await further instructions from Earth.

Following a full evaluation of telemetry received following the curtailed test, the flight team were confident that no actual damage had occurred to the helicopter, stating the full spin-up test of the rotors would be postponed and the flight itself delayed until April 14th. They also indicated that assuming the first flight was completed without incident, the second flight will take place on Sunday, April 18th.

The rotor tests took place once Perseverance was well clear of the helicopter – the rover is gradually making its way to the look-out point where it will record Ingenuity’s flights. However, before it did so, engineers took the opportunity to use the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) camera on the rover’s robot arm to capture a series of 62 images that were stitched together to produce a picture of Perseverance apparently “looking” back at the helicopter using its mast cam imaging systems, and which can be seen at the top of this article.

Another image Perseverance took that recently caused excitement was one that appeared to show a “rainbow” arcing across the dusty Martian sky. Captured on April 4th (Sol 43), the image spread quickly across social media, as did the “rainbow” explanation.

Captured on April 4th (Sol 43), this image via the rear-facing Hazcam system on Perseverance caused excitement in the media, being described as a “rainbow”. However, it wasn’t any such thing, as NASA was forced to explain. Credit: NASA/JPL

The only problem being, rainbows are impossible on Mars, as NASA quickly stepped in to note through social media:

Many have asked: Is that a rainbow on Mars? No. Rainbows aren’t possible here. Rainbows are created by light reflected off of round water droplets, but there isn’t enough water here to condense, and it’s too cold for liquid water in the atmosphere.

NASA, via the @NASAPersevere Twitter account.

Rather, the “rainbow” was the result of lens flare – light being scattered by the lens of the Hazcam (HAZard avoidance CAMera) that captured the image, to strike the imaging sensor in multiple places like an arc of machine-gun bullets. Such effects are prevented on the front-facing Hazcams (the ones most frequently used by the rover, as they are equipped with sunshades; however, similar shades were deemed superfluous on the rear-facing Hazcams, and so lens flares like this are actually quite common should the system be in use and the Sun happens to be in the right position.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Mars, galaxies and starships”

Space Sunday: vistas of Mars and more on rockets

Released on March 5th, 2021, this image was captured on February 22nd, 2021 (Sol 4), using the Mastcam-Z system on NASA’s Perseverance rover. It shows a raised section of outflow delta sediments approximately 2.3 km west of “Octavia E. Butler Landing”, where the rover touched down. It was likely formed by material carried into the crater by flowing water that gradually settled as the flow of water met the calmer waters of the crater lake. The remnant is approximately 25-30m high and some 200m across at its base, as indicated by the horizontal scale. Beyond it can be seen the crater wall forming the backdrop to the image. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has spent a further week prepping itself to commence full-time operations on Mars, while also clocking up a distance of 90+ metres while further exercising its driving skills. The mission has also started honouring the Navajo people and their language.

Prior to the mission launching, the science team divided the anding site in Jezeo Crater into a grid with each cell covering an area of 1.5 square kilometres and after a US national park exhibiting similar geology. The plan was to compile a list of names inspired by each cell’s national park that could be used to name features observed by Perseverance. However, as the rover landed in the cell named for Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Tséyi’ in Navajo), in the heart of the Navajo Nation, the mission team reached out to the Navajo Nation through team member Aaron Yazzie, himself a Navajo (or Diné), to seek their permission and collaboration in naming new features on Mars.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer enthusiastically agreed to the idea and worked with advisers to make an initial list of 50 words in the Navajo language that could be used by the rover’s team in  dubbing surface features imaged by the rover.

The partnership that [we have] built with NASA will help to revitalize our Navajo language. We hope that having our language used in the Perseverance mission will inspire more of our young Navajo people to understand the importance and the significance of learning our language. Our words were used to help win World War II, and now we are helping to navigate and learn more about the planet Mars.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez

“Máaz” (Navajo for “Mars”) is currently the first target for scientific study by Perseverance. Credit: NASA/JPL

These names have already started to be used, and more are being added to the list. There is, however a complication: the accent marks used in the English alphabet to convey the unique intonation of the Navajo language cannot be read by the computer languages Perseverance uses. So instead, the science team is working with the Navajo to produce unaccented phonetic representations of the names which the rover can interpret.

The first of the Navajo names to be used is “Máaz” (the Navajo word for Mars – or “Maaz” to the rover). It has been applied to the first target for study by the rover, a large, flat rock the rover is due the commence studying soon. A second rock, dubbed “Yeehgo” (Yéigo in Navajo) has been used as a test subject for the rover’s SuperCam.

“Yeehgo” some 3.1m from the rover was used as a test subject for the SuperCam imager system and lasers on March 10th (Sol 16), during the rover’s driving operations. This images so the image contrasts from Navcam imagers (main picture) to Mastcam-Z (lower right) and Supercam mosaic of 2 images.Credit: NASA/JPL

Developed jointly by the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico and a consortium of French research laboratories under the auspices of French space agency CNES, SuperCam is an instrument suite that can provide imaging, chemical composition analysis, and mineralogy in rocks and regolith from a distance. It comprises two lasers that can “zap” rocks and other features multiple times per second while using it imaging system and four spectrometers to analyse the vapour and dust given off by the laser strikes to determine the composition of the material struck and potentially identify bio-signatures and assess the past habitability of the rock.

“Yeehgo” was used as a means of testing the resolution of the Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) on the SuperCam system, with the rover’s high-resolution Mastcam and Navcam systems (both of which are mounted on the rover’s mast just below the SuperCam) also capturing images for context. The rock was also a target for the laser systems, which the on-board microphones picked up as they fired, the lasers sounding like a fast swinging Newton’s Cradle (sorry, no “pew-pew!” from Mars).

Since departing “Octavia E. Butler Landing” the rover has been scouting locations of interest,  in particular looking for an area when it might safely drop off the Ingenuity drone helicopter. The latter is intended to complete its test flights in the first 30-60 days of the mission in order to free-up the rover so it can drive much further afield and get on with its primary science mission in earnest.

Along the way, Perseverance paused to take in objects such as the rocks mentioned above, and to perform checks of its underside using the imaging systems on its robot arm, checking on the ejection of the “belly pan” covering the underside caching system that will deposit samples of rock and material for collection by a future sample-return mission.

I’ll have more on the Mars 2020 mission over the coming weeks.

Left: March 12th (Sol 18), the imaging system on the rover’s robot arm is used to check the underneath of the vehicle ahead of the release of the belly pan (outlined) covering the sample caching system. The four forward cameras of the Hazcam system can be seen at the top of the picture. Right: March 13th (Sol 19), a view from the rover’s rear Hazcam system images the belly pan on the ground as the rover resumes its drive. Credit: NASA/JPL

Continue reading “Space Sunday: vistas of Mars and more on rockets”

Space Sunday: crashes, tests and an Inspiration

Two seconds from disaster: an inverted Starship prototype SN9 about to impact the landing pad at Boca Chica, February 2nd,2021. Directly below the vehicle and on the horizon is the angled base of the Super Heavy launch platform (under construction). Centred on the ground is the Starhopper test vehicle with the SN7.2 test tank to the right. Image credit: Cosmic Perspective

On Tuesday, February 2nd, and after Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) related delays, SpaceX Starship prototype SN9 took to the skies over southern Texas in the second high altitude flight test for the Starship programme.

The flight itself, to some 10 km altitude, followed by a skydive descent to around the 2 km altitude mark, was remarkably successfully – as was the case with the first high-altitude flight (to 12 km on that occasion) seen with Starship prototype SN8 in December 2020 (see: Space Sunday: the flight of SN8 and a round-up). However, and also like the SN8 flight, things went off-kilter during the final element of the flight, resulting in a complete loss of the vehicle.

Lift-off: SN9 rises from its launch platform with SN10 beyond it. he angle of this shot makes the two vehicles appear closer than they were in reality; SN10 was in fact well clear of its sister. Image credit: LabPadre

As I’ve previously noted, the route of Staship prototype SN9 from fabrication high bay to launch stand had been remarkably fast compared to that of SN8, leading to speculation that the anticipated second flight test could occur in January. However, while the vehicle remained on the launch stand going through numerous pre-flight tests, including numerous Raptor engine re-start tests (which actually saw two of the motors swapped-out), things appeared stalled before that final step of an actual flight.

This now appears to be down to the fact that the FAA weren’t entirely happy with SpaceX over the flight of SN8, which effectively went ahead without proper approval. In short, SpaceX applied for a waiver against the licence the FAA had granted for Starship flight testing which would have allowed the company to exceed “maximum public risk as allowed by federal  safety regulations”.

At the time, the waiver was denied – but the SN8 launch went ahead, violating the required safety limits, and whilst no-one was injured in the crash of SN8, the FAA correctly ordered a full investigation into the flight and also the safety culture and management oversight of SpaceX operations. Those investigations not only took time to complete, but also afterwards required FAA review and modifications made to the licence granted to SpaceX to carry out Starship prototype flights.

Boca Chica from space: captured by a SkySat satellite approximately 568 km above the Earth, this image shows the SpaceX Boca Chica launch facility with the two Starship prototypes on their launch stands, the SN7.2 tank test unit, the Super Heavy booster launch stand under construction, and other elements such as the fuel farm, and Highway 4 running from the coast (r) back to the SpaceX construction and fabrication facilities (off to the left of the image). Image credit: Planet Labs
If a licensee violates the terms of their launch license, they did so knowing that an uninvolved member of the public could have been hurt or killed. That is not exaggeration. They took a calculated risk with your life and property … If the FAA does not enforce their launch licenses, it will damage the long-term viability of the launch industry and damage their credibility with Congress. It is possible that the industry could suffer significant regulatory burdens enforced by Congress to ensure safety.

– Former deputy chief of staff and senior FAA adviser Jared Zambrano-Stout,
commenting on SpaceX launching SN8 without the request licence waiver

The required licence modifications were not completed until February 1st, the day on which SpaceX initially attempted to launch SN9, and their lack of their availability may have been the reason that attempt was scrubbed, resulting in the February 2nd attempt.

Coverage of the test flight started very early on the morning (local time) on February 2nd, with SpaceX providing multiple camera points around the launch stand and on the vehicle, as well as via drones.flying overhead In addition, space flght enthusiast such as also provided coverage from multiple points around the Boca Chica, Texas, site, including video recorded by Mary “BocaChicaGirl”, who provides a daily 24/7 feed of activity at the site.

The vehicle, with prototype SN10 occupying a second launch stand nearby, lifted-off at 20:25:15 UTC, following the ignition of all three Raptor engines. The launch was delayed by some 25 minutes as a result of a range safety violation – one of the circumstances of concern to the FAA. However, the ascent itself was flawless, with the vehicle rapidly climbing to altitude over the next four minutes, two of the Raptors shutting down as it did so to reduce the dynamic stresses on the vehicle in light of it being only partially fuelled and to ensure it didn’t overshoot the planned apogee for the flight.

Flip over: at 10 km altitude, the one operational Raptor motor gimbals its thrust as the leeward midships RCS thruster fires, tipping SN9 over to start its 2-minute skydive back to the ground. Image credit: SpaceX

This came at 20:29:15 UTC, with the vehicle entering a brief hover using its one firing motor, as fuel supplies were switched from the main tanks to the smaller “header” tanks that would be used to power the engines during landing manoeuvres. At this point, the remaining motor shut down as the reaction control  system (RCS) thrusters fired, gently pushing the vehicle over from vertical and into its skydive position, where the fore and aft aerodynamic surfaces could be used to stabilise the vehicle during descent.

This phase of the descent lasted just over 2 minutes, with the order given to re-start two of the Raptor engines given at 20:31:35 UTC. These engines should have then gimballed and used their thrust, together with the forward RCS thrusters to return the vehicle to a vertical pose before one of the motors again shut down and the second slowed the vehicle into a propulsive, tail-first landing.

From below: a camera on the ground dramatically captures the moment one of the Raptor engines on SN9 re-starts as RCS systems fire to help maintain stability. Image credit: SpaceX

Both of these motors fire a split second apart, and footage of the rear of the vehicle suggests that the first may have suffered a mis-fire before starting correctly. However, the second motor appears to have suffered a catastrophic failure on re-start, possibly involving a turbopump failure: as it ignited, debris could clearly be seen being blown clear of the vehicle.

With only one operational main engine, SN9 was unable to stop its change in flight profile and remain upright. Instead, it continued to rotate and become inverted just before it struck the landing pad in what SpaceX refer to as “an energetic, rapid unscheduled disassembly” (that’s “exploded on impact” for the rest of us).

No official word on the failure has been given – obviously, SpaceX will need time for a thorough investigation, and will likely have the FAA watching closely. It is also not clear if the material coming away from the vehicle is actually parts of the engine, or sections of the engine skirt blown clear of the vehicle. As some are still to be drifting down to the ground fairly close to SN10 on its launch stand, it is possible they are from the vehicle’s skin.

A wider image of the inverted SN9 prototype just before impact, with the Super Heavy launch stand, SN7.2 tank and Starhopper prototype overlapping one another, and the SN10 prototype to the right. Note the debris (arrowed) drifting down behind the vehicle. Image credit:

Continue reading “Space Sunday: crashes, tests and an Inspiration”

Space Sunday: Hops, glows, plans and Perseids

SpaceX SN5 rises from its launch stand at the SpaceX Boca Chica, Texas, centre. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX once again heads this week’s column after the Starship SN5 prototype became the first of the units to successfully make a “hop” into the air and back again, travelling some 150 metres up and several tens of metres sideways to navigate its way from launch platform to landing pad.

The flight of the “flying spray can” – the nickname derived from the vehicle’s cylindrical form topped by the nozzle-like 23 tonne ballast mass – only lasted around a minute once the Raptor engine fired, but the hop represented a huge leap forward for SpaceX in their development of the Starship vehicle.

As I noted in July, SN5’s unusual shape is due to it only comprising the section of the vehicle containing its fuel tanks, single raptor engine and landing legs. It lacks any upper sections (replacing by the ballast block) and the aerodynamic surfaces that will give Starship a lifting body capability during atmospheric operations. These will all be present in future prototypes, But for SN5, they are not currently required, as its initial flight(s) are purely about testing Starship’s ability to make a vertical descent and landing.

A starship cutaway showing the fuel tanks and engine bay (outlined in red) that form the prototype vehicle SN5, and the upper cargo / habitation space and aerodynamic surfaces that are not included on the current prototype. Credit: WAI (with additional annotation)

The successful test flight took place on Tuesday, August 4th – an attempt on Sunday, August 2nd was cancelled  due to unfavourable weather in the Boca Chica, Texas, area. Engine ignition came at 23:57 UTC (18:57 local time), the prototype rising vertically, but canted at a slight angle. This  was due to the initial prototypes being designed to operate with three Raptor motors, by SN5 is currently only fitting with one, offset from the vehicle’s vertical centreline, so the vehicle is canted (with the ad of the top ballast block) to compensate for the offset thrust from the motor, with small reaction control system (RCS) jets near the base and top of the vehicle occasionally firing to help maintain a stable flight angle.

As the craft rose, the Raptor motor was also gimballed (moved around like you move a joystick on a game controller, a common practice for rocket motors to allow them to use directed thrust to adjust a flight trajectory), vectoring its thrust so it could translate across to the landing pad for a successful landing.

Prototype nose cones being fabricated at Boca Chica. Credit: / BocaChicaGal

SpaceX released a video afterwards the flight showing the highlights. In it, SN5 can be seen lifting off, trailing a plume of vented cooling gas, the RCS jets visible as they fire to help maintain stability. The footage also clearly shows the Raptor’s offset exhaust plume moving as the motor in vectored, as well as the craft maintaining a brief hover at the apex of its flight before descending sideways and down towards the landing pad.

Cameras at the base of the vehicle show the landing legs being deployed, as well as a small, non-hazardous fire on the Raptor motor, likely the result of dust blown into the engine space at lift-off that subsequently ignited. This “inside” camera and one on the SN5 hull then captured the moment of landing and engine shut down.

Prototypes SN6, 7, and 8 are in development, and some of these will fly with the aforementioned forward / upper sections and flight surfaces in loftier (literally) and more complex flight tests. Currently, it not clear how many more flights SN5 will make. However, Musk has already indicated he would like to have Starship use a more “Falcon Like” set of landing legs to provide broader support when landing on uneven planetary surfaces, so SN5 might by used to test new landing leg configurations alongside testing of other prototypes.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Hops, glows, plans and Perseids”

Space Sunday: SpaceX Starship update

A Starship / Super Heavy pairing lifts-off from a dedicated launch facility in this still from an animated video produced by SpaceX for the September 28th, 2019 update. Credit: SpaceX

On the occasion of the eleventh anniversary of SpaceX achieving orbit for the first time with their Falcon 1 rocket on September 28th, 2008, CEO Elon Musk presented an update on the company’s progress developing its massive Super Heavy booster and interplanetary class vehicle, Starship.

It has been some 12 months since the last update on the development of the two vehicles – the last update really being overshadowed by the announcement SpaceX planned to fly a Japanese billionaire and his entourage around the Moon and back (see Moon trips, Mr Spock’s “home” and roving an asteroid for more), and the programme has moved on significantly since then, as indicated by the fact that the 2019 update took place at the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica and against the backdrop of the first of the Starship prototype vehicle.

Starship Mk1 under construction at the SpaceX facilities near Boca Chica, Texas. Credit: unknown

Since its first public unveiling in 2016, the Starship / Super Heavy combination has been through a number of iterations and name changes. However, it is fair to say that things have now settled down on the design front, and what was presented at Boca Chica is liable to remain largely unchanged, assuming everything proceeds as SpaceX hopes.

In this, the flight capable prototype Starship at Boca Chica is the first in a series of such vehicles. A second is  under construction at the SpaceX facilities in Cocoa, Florida, and three more are planned, one of which will be used to make the first orbital flight within the next 6 months, and Musk suggesting another could be used in a crewed orbital flight within the next 12 months – which sounds exceptionally ambitious. Construction of the two initial Starship prototypes has not exactly been secret: both have been literally assembled in the open. So even ahead of the September 28th event, some were already developing renderings of the new Starship design compared to the last known iteration.

A rendering by Kimi Talvitie comparing the 2018 design for Starship (l) with the prototype (r). The rendering of the 2019 prototype was based on direct feedback from Elon Musk

The new design sees some significant changes in Starship – notably with the fins, canards and landing legs. The 2018 variant was marked by three large fins, two of which would be actuated (hinged for up / down motion relative to the hull) for atmospheric flight, with all three fins containing the vehicle’s landing legs. At the time of that design, I commented that this approach appeared risky: a heavy landing on the Moon or Mars might conceivably damage one of the actuated fins, affecting the vehicle’s ability to undertake atmospheric flight on its return to Earth.

With the new design, the fins are reduced to two and reshaped, both of which are actuated to hinge “up” and “down”. In addition, the landing system is now independent of the fins, removing the greater part of the risk of damaging them on landing. The number of landing legs is also increased to six. At the forward end of the vehicle, the canards are enlarged and hinged in a similar manner to the fins.

Starship’s basic specification. Note the “dry” mass of 85 tonnes is incorrectly stated in the slide: it is expected the production version of Starship will mass around 120 tonnes (the prototype masses around 200 tonnes. Credit: SpaceX

The remaining aspects of the design are more-or-less unchanged as far as the body of the ship is concerned: it will be some 50 metres (162.5ft) in length and have a diameter of 9m (29ft). The forward end of the vehicle will be given over to crew and passengers or cargo (or a mix of the two), although Musk now estimates the vehicle will – with the aid of the Super Heavy booster – be lifting up to 150 tonnes to low Earth orbit – an increase of roughly a third – and return up to 50 tonnes to Earth.

To help achieve this, the motor system has been slight revised. While six engines will still be used, three will now be optimised for vacuum thrust, ideal for orbital flight and pushing the vehicle out to the Moon or Mars, and the remaining three optimised for sea level thrust and capable of being gimballed for use during a descent through an atmosphere and landing.

Starship’s motor arrangement: three central Raptor engines optimised for sea level thrust and capable of gimballing and three outer vacuum optimised motors with fixed, large diameter exhaust bells for maximum efficiency. The “boxes” visible in the rendering are potentially additional cargo bins. Credit: SpaceX

During the presentation, Musk explained the rationale behind the use of 301 cold rolled stainless steel in the design, noting a number of reasons. Firstly, the cold rolling process results in a stronger, light finished product, and this becomes even stronger when exposed to the very low temperatures of cryogenic fuels. Thus, Starship and Super Heavy in theory have a structural strength equitable to that of carbon composites – but at a much lower overall mass.

Secondly, the cold rolled steel has very high melt temperatures, reducing the amount of direct heat shielding required, again reducing the vehicle’s overall mass. It is also both highly corrosion-resistant and easy to work with. This means that basic repairs to a vehicle on the surface of the Moon or Mars could be effected, or even that a Starship could even be dismantled and the steel from the hull re-purposed. Finally, there’s the fact that all these advantages are gained in a product costing around 2% that of an equivalent mass of carbon composite.

Starship Mk 1 filmed during the September 28th livestream event. Credit: SpaceX

In terms of heat shielding, the “windward” side of Starship (the side facing the fictional heat of entry into an atmosphere) will be coated with lightweight ceramic tiles. Somewhat similar in nature to those used within the space shuttle, they will be of a hardier material and less prone to damage. The re-entry profile was also discussed, with Musk comparing Starship to a sky diver.

To explain: the vehicle will approach the atmosphere at a relatively high 60-degree incidence, using the heat generated by contact with the upper atmosphere to slow its velocity from Mach 25 to a point where, once within the denser atmosphere, the vehicle is literally falling more-or-less horizontally. The fins and canards can then be used to maintain the vehicles orientation in a similar manner to that of a sky diver using his arms and legs. in addition, the lift generated by fins and canards will further help slow its descent until, roughly 2 km above the ground, the vehicle will rotate to a vertical position and use the three gimballed Raptor motors to make a propulsive, tail-first landing.

SpaceX plan to offer Starship in support of lunar operations – but the company’s goal is to establish a permanent human presence on Mars. Credit: SpaceX

Starship Mk 1 is equipped with the same sea level optimised Raptor motors as intended for the production vehicles.  SpaceX hope to see it make at least one flight before the end of the year – although the company has yet to secure a permit from the US Federal Aviation Authority to commence flights. This first attempt will be to an altitude of around 20 km (12.5 mi) before a descent and landing. If successful, the test programme involving the various prototype vehicles will unfold from there.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: SpaceX Starship update”