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A prototype for SpaceX̵
The stainless steel cylinder appeared to burst near its top after being filled with super-cold liquid nitrogen overnight at the SpaceX launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, tweeted early Friday that the accident may be due to a “test configuration error”.
The spacecraft is the top tier of the next generation SpaceX launch and space transportation system. Coupled with a massive booster called Super Heavy, the spacecraft could transport more than 100 tons of cargo or 220,000 pounds of cargo into orbit close to Earth, according to SpaceX.
The fully reusable Super Heavy and Starship vehicles that can carry people will eventually replace the partially reusable Falcon missile family, says SpaceX.
Testing Starship prototypes in southern Texas, however, was not as fast as Musk had hoped. Last September, Musk said he wanted the spacecraft to reach orbit within six months. That timeframe passed last week, and no full-size spacecraft test ship has yet flown.
The third starship prototype pressure test, named SN3, was completed earlier this week at ambient temperature. The next step was to load cryogenic liquid nitrogen into the vehicle. This test ended on Friday morning
If the pressure test was completed without incident this week, the SpaceX teams wanted to test fire the drive system of the Starship SN3 vehicle next week. This would have been followed by a short jump from the spaceship.
SN3 disassembly pic.twitter.com/4pOrjVFQNl
– SPadre (@SpacePadreIsle) April 3, 2020
Last August, SpaceX performed a 150-meter jump from an earlier iteration of the spaceship called Hopper.
The test incident on Friday was the third time that a Starship prototype had burst during a print test.
The first Starship test vehicle, called the Starship Mk1, exploded on November 20 during a pressure test in southern Texas. This vehicle was originally intended to perform a test flight at a height of 20 kilometers, but SpaceX said this had changed these plans and converted the spacecraft Mk1 into a ground tester before the accident on November 20.
A modified Starship prototype called SN1 collapsed during a print test on February 28th. According to Musk, the engineers believed that the fault was caused by a “thrust puck” at the bottom of the vehicle that transfers the loads from the vehicle’s Raptor motors.
SpaceX has dismantled the next Starship prototype called SN2 to test the weld that connects the thrust puck to the vehicle. This test was successful.
Like the SN1, the SN3 prototype was built without aerodynamic fins or a nose cone that would be contained in a full-size aircraft.
The construction of the next Starship vehicle called SN4 has already started in South Texas. Work continues in the midst of the corona virus pandemic, and many aerospace companies such as SpaceX are continuing to operate at home, with the exception of local and government contracts.
Aerospace parts are considered part of the country’s critical manufacturing sector, and SpaceX is considered part of the U.S. military’s industrial base. The spacecraft could eventually launch national security payloads.
SpaceX is also planning a spacecraft manufacturing facility in Los Angeles and could launch future spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Production and testing are currently concentrated in southern Texas.
The company recently released its first user guide for Starship payload.
In the instruction manual, SpaceX staff wrote that the spacecraft and Super Heavy could deliver more than 100 tons into near-Earth orbit and 21 tons (over 46,000 pounds) into geostationary transfer orbit, the delivery point for many commercial and military communications satellites.
With in-orbit refueling, a capability that is still in the early stages of development, the spacecraft could deliver more than 100 tons of payload to the surface of the moon or Mars, according to SpaceX.
A crew-compatible configuration of the spaceship could transport up to 100 people from Earth to Earth’s orbit, the Moon or Mars, according to SpaceX.
“Starship’s crew configuration includes private cabins, large common areas, central storage, sunshades, and an observation gallery,” SpaceX wrote in the Starship User Guide.
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.