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By Matt Williams
Despite a few setbacks in the past few months, 2019 is shaping up to be an exciting year for SpaceX. After a series of successful tethered hop tests, the ground crews at the company’s South Texas Launch Site in Boca Chica conducted the first free-flight test of the Starship Hopper late last month – which saw the test vehicle ascend to 20 meters (~65 feet), move laterally, and then land again.
Based on this success, Musk announced shortly thereafter that the company could be taking the next step and conducting a 200 meter (650 foot) hop sometime this month. This past weekend, Musk also indicated that the company will be giving further updates on the design of the finished Starship later this month, followed by a test of the “Starship Mk1”, an orbital-class prototype that will feature three Raptor engines.
All of this mirrors the progress that the company is making towards the realization of the Starship and Super-Heavy rocket – also known as the BFR. In addition to the successful free-flight test at Boca Chica, observers at their facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida, have watched the second orbital-class Starship prototype experienced an acceleration in its assembly process.
Last, but not least, there is the progress being made on the three-engine prototype at Boca Chica, where engineers have begun installing the propellant tank bulkheads and are working on the vehicle’s structure. Their progress was captured in a series of images provided by observers, as well as those released by SpaceX (shown above) in the early morning hours this past Monday (Aug. 5th).
The images show the first 9-meter (30-foot) diameter dome being moved into place by a crane and then flipped over. Behind it, the first bulkhead of the Starship is visible. This structure, which stands 25 m (80 ft) in height, consists of the spacecraft’s propulsion section and propellant tanks.
According to Eric Ralph of Teslarati, the orientation of this dome and the recent arrival of a second at the facility indicates that this segment is “almost certainly the bottom dome and first of three to be installed. It will thus serve as the bottom of the Texas Starship’s liquid methane propellant tank”, as well as an important structural component.
Also featured in the images (bottom right) is the airframe of the three-engine prototype, which is surrounded by a protective wind frame. But perhaps the biggest news was Musk declaring that one or both of these prototypes could be ready to fly by August 24th, at which time Musk will be announcing the latest official update of the Starship design and development process.
Initially, Musk said that the latest updates would be announced either from the company’s Boca Chica test facility or at their launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida. However, after the impassioned pleas that it take place at Boca Chica by a dedicated follower, Musk tweeted, “Very convincing! Ok, Boca it is. We should have Starship Mk1 with 3 Raptors almost ready to fly by then.”
This comes a few weeks after Musk stated on July 19th that both prototypes would be ready to conduct suborbital flights in “2 to 3 months“, which would put the launch date at some time in September or October. If his most recent statement represents a slight change in that timetable, then it is possible that they will be ready to launch shortly after Musk’s latest update on the final design of the Starship.
So while 2019 have started out on a bit of rough patch for SpaceX, it could very well end an incredibly high note! If the past few weeks are any indication, whatever setbacks that have been experienced so far will not be slowing down progress on the Starship. Once finished, this completely reusable, super-heavy launch system will help Musk fulfill his promise of conducting regular missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Moon, and to Mars.
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