Starbase Update | S20 Static Fire and New Test Facility | 11/15/21

This week at Starbase saw the first-ever successful six-engine static fire on a Starship vehicle. Next, new community footage from RGV Aerial Photography reveals a new SpaceX Test facility under construction just down the road from Starbase, indicating future intentions of the area. Finally, the start of Booster 4 testing appears to be near, with more fuel deliveries made to the orbital fuel farm and indicators that the work on the Chopsticks is nearing initial completion. 

Ship 20 Static Fire

On Friday, the 12th of November, Ship 20 entered another period of testing to successfully static fire all six raptor engines installed on the vehicle. With the public beach and state highway closed, SpaceX employees prepared the vehicle and launch site for testing operations before evacuating to a safe distance. 

SpaceX first conducted a successful preburner test, using all of the engines installed. While the engines themselves are configured in a 3:3 split between the Raptor Vacuum variant and the sea level optimized Raptor Center engine, the internal components of the engines remain largely the same, allowing for tests like these to go ahead.

Following this, the vehicle then moved onto fueling for the static fire tests, with the LOX section of the vehicle forming a significant layer of frost on its exposed metal body. The Methane tank, however, did not form a frost layer, which would seem to indicate a much lower fill rate. Once ready, the vehicle appeared to go through an aborted static fire, although quickly followed this up with the first ever successful six engine static fire of a Starship vehicle. 

This marks the biggest milestone yet of Ship 20’s testing campaign, with the possibility of this being the final test before preparations for the first orbital flight. During the testing period, Ship 20 has lost some heat shield tiles that will need to be replaced, while the overall vehicle will need to be checked again to reduce risk of failure during flight. With that being said it would not be surprising to see SpaceX be more cautious and conduct further tests on the vehicle to further reduce the risk of failure during flight. 

New Test Facility

This week also saw some of the first footage captured of a new SpaceX test facility nearby to Starbase by RGV Aerial Photography. This facility used to be an old shooting range, but was purchased in the last few months by SpaceX with no disclosed plans about its future use. The property itself extends towards the Rio Grande River which is used as the de facto border between the USA and Mexico. 

It is currently expected that this will be the home of a smaller engine test facility, focused on fixing and testing engines already at Starbase. SpaceX’s current facility at McGregor, Texas, is a 7-hour drive, creating a significant delay between sending engines away for repairs and getting them back. By developing a much smaller facility nearby, some of these operations can be relocated to Starbase, allowing for a shorter feedback loop and an overall more efficient repair chain. 

Another major advantage of developing this facility at Starbase is the capacity it creates at McGregor, which will soon be home to the new Raptor Factory. This factory is targeting 800-1,000 engines a year to support Starship Fleet Operations, but in turn will require each of these engines to go through their testing campaigns, similar to current requirements for the Merlin Engines on Falcon 9. 

Thanks to the photos released by RGV, we can see that a lot of work has already been carried out. The most noticeable feature is the new berm that is being extended down and across the original shooting range. Berms are used to direct the flow of gases or liquids, depending on where the berm is installed. At Starbase, there are multiple berms to protect the tank farms and other facilities from the exhaust from tests and flight operations. At this point, a larger berm is being constructed at Starbase to protect the orbital fuel farm from booster test and launch operations.

Another noticeable feature is the mini water plant at the southern end of the facility. Situated on a recently laid gravel foundation, this plant has multiple smaller tanks and several containers containing equipment that appears to be used to cover basic water needs at the facility. There is also a significant amount of construction materials on-site, although their purpose is yet to be determined. Whether SpaceX is using this facility as a storage location for these materials, or whether they will be used to construct the test stands and other facilities.

Booster 4 Test Campaign

Finally, with the potential end of preflight testing for Ship 20, Booster 4 now moves into the spotlight. This week saw more fuel deliveries to the orbital fuel farm as SpaceX prepares to start the first full test campaign of a Super Heavy Booster. While Booster 3 did conduct some testing, it was ultimately scrapped in favor to move ahead with Booster 4, and only static fired with three installed engines. In comparison, Booster 4 will have 29 engines and will need to go through a similar testing program to Ship 20.

Currently, there are road closures planned for the following dates:

  • Wednesday, 17th of November - 10 am to 6 pm. 
  • Thursday, 18th of November - 10 am to 6 pm
  • Friday, 19th of November - 6 am  to 12 pm
  • Monday, 21st of November, 10 am to 6 pm
  • Tuesday, 22nd of November, 10 am to 6 pm

The plans for these closures have not been disclosed yet, although if Ship 20’s campaign is complete, then we could see Booster 4 be lifted onto the stand and the first tests completed. Before this can happen though, the Chopsticks will need to climb the tower to move out of the way and protect themselves against any RUDs. They will also be used to lift boosters and ships onto the stand for testing and operations, although their use with Booster 4 is doubtful. Instead, it’s expected that the new SpaceX LR11000 crane will lift Booster 4 back into position.

Booster 4 is expected to follow a similar testing campaign to Ship 20, with ambient pressure tests first, followed by cryogenic tests and then static fires. How long this will take to complete is yet to be determined, although it is important to note that SpaceX has no deadline currently in place. They are still waiting for the FAA to give their final approval for Super Heavy Operations, which will allow the company to apply for a launch license. Current community estimates put this now earlier than Q1 of 2022.

Written by: Carl Bolland (/u/TheEarthquakeGuy)