Remnants of the fourth spacecraft: an improved heat shield, a new tower in Florida, and a mission to Mars in three years

Less than a week ago we witnessed the fourth flight of Starship (IFT-4) with Super Heavy B11 and Starship S29 and new developments have not stopped happening in the exciting, changing and sometimes controversial world of SpaceX. The IFT-4 mission was the first of its kind in the Starship system and one that can be considered a success as long as all mission objectives were achieved: B11 touched down gently in the Gulf of Mexico and Starship S29 did the same in the Indian Ocean, after surviving re-entry and performing a vertical maneuver and re-entry. Operating Raptor engines. For the first time in history, two stages of an orbital rocket returned to Earth in one piece. Following the lack of attitude control that S28 encountered on the third mission, SpaceX made several improvements to S29 to avoid this situation, including a new pair of gyro-control thrusters located below the cargo hatch. In this sense, despite the impressive venting that can be observed during the suborbital trajectory, it is clear that the spacecraft’s attitude was under control.

32 of 33 Raptors lit up on takeoff from IFT-4 (SpaceX).

As for the heat shield, the results are somewhat contradictory. For one thing, S29 survived reentry — despite not having three tiles intentionally installed on the bottom to collect data on the ship’s behavior — leaving critics who predicted that such an unsophisticated heat shield was doomed to failure. On the other hand, it turns out that the armor has particular weak points, as expected, in the joints between the flaps and the fuselage. Most of the spacecraft’s hexagonal tiles are attached mechanically using three anchor points, but there are areas, such as the nose and two segments of segments with reinforcements for the cylindrical structure, where they are attached with glue, as on the Space Shuttle. And just as it happened Transportation serviceThese areas cause headaches for technicians. For S29, SpaceX experimented with a new red adhesive different from the blue we’ve seen so far, as well as scraping the steel surface to help with grip, but it’s unclear how successful these measures were.

S29’s right front wing partially disintegrates upon reentry (SpaceX).

The fact is that the right front cover did its job despite the gap in the gasket and the subsequent disintegration of the rear part. The flap was able to open during the landing maneuver. Back side Before landing, though, he took his last breath and during the maneuver, forward communication failed. After all, the cover was still attached to the S29 when I lost the image. The key is to see how the rest of the S29 chassis took care of the adventure. The S29 only had two external cameras to see the fuselage: a camera that gave us a view of the right front flap, located inside a special slab, and another camera at the end of the left flap that had the fuselage implemented as a field of view and the left rear flap. However, it appears that the left flap camera did not transmit images of the final stage of re-entry.

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S29 during reentry (SpaceX).

In any case, Elon Musk stated that the damage to the left wing was less severe than the right, although it was also affected by reentry (the S29 also had cameras in the engine compartment and one for the outer side view, but these were not repaired). I posted pictures of them in the re-entry). S29 fell into the Indian Ocean in the middle of the night and it is possible that the FTS was activated to make the pieces sink more quickly. Whatever the case, one of the improvements SpaceX will introduce in the next ship, the S30, is to replace the existing tiles with more resistant ones (“double heat-resistant,” whatever exactly that means), a process that has already begun (the S30, by the way, does not have A camera to see the front right fender, although after the success of the S29 it wouldn’t be surprising if a similar camera were added). An ablative material beneath the tiles would protect the fuselage in the event of a tile failure (it is not clear if this material was used on the S29).

Launch of IFT-4 (SpaceX).

As for the Super Heavy B11, let’s remember that it suffered the loss of one Raptor from the outer ring (the one that is fixed and lights up only once) and then one of the thirteen moving Raptors from the second ring malfunctioned during braking and ignition (this Raptor lights up three times: take-off lighting , return lighting, and landing braking lighting). In the launch day video, we could see shrapnel coming off the B11’s cradle during brake burn, possibly parts of the failed engine. A few days later SpaceX posted a stunning video of B11’s massive fall that was filmed from one of the buoys. The fact that the buoy was in the right place confirms Musk’s statements in which he indicated that B11’s descent was very precise (he did not specify its amount). So much so that Musk confirmed that on the next flight a Super Heavy capture would be attempted using the arms of the launch tower (on the other hand, S29 landed quite farther than expected – a few kilometers – due to a structural failure in the flap. Again, no exact numbers were provided for error).

B11 approaches the water as seen from the buoy (SpaceX).

Of course in the same video you can see the B11 undergoing a fire almost touching the water, possibly due to a fuel leak resulting from the Raptor’s failure in the second ring. The announcement that the Super Heavy would grab the tower on the next flight certainly surprised many, including me, even though the maneuver is relatively safe. First, because, as with the return to dry land in the Falcon 9 stages, the landing path is chosen in such a way that the stage will end up in the water if something goes wrong. Second, because while the brakes are on, the Super Heavy only carries a small portion of the initial propellant, so a potential explosion wouldn’t be as terrible. Let us remember that for the landing maneuver, Super Heavy carries the propellant in a relatively small liquid oxygen tank with a diameter of 3 meters located inside the base of the main (lower) oxygen tank, while using the methane accumulated in the pipeline. Transfer from the methane tank (top) to the engine compartment (in the same way, the spacecraft uses propellant from the two small front tanks, located in the vehicle’s cone, for landing).

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Spacecraft (FAA).

However, the Super Heavy could suffer a malfunction of the Raptor or its guidance system at the last minute, causing it to crash into the tower, launch pad or other facilities. Although the damage shouldn’t be massive, it could delay subsequent missions, not to mention the potential environmental impact. However, many rumors indicate that SpaceX is planning to completely or partially demolish the orbital tower and launch pad due to construction defects and in order to improve it for the next version of Starship, Starship 2, a larger and more powerful launcher that would allow us to restore the system’s original payload capacity. (100 tons in the reusable version) after we know that the current version can only put about 50 tons into low orbit (it is possible that the capacity was increased in the last mission or in the following cases if the Raptor generates maximum thrust). In this case, the collision of the very heavy vehicle with the tower would not be so dramatic… from Elon Musk’s point of view, of course. Musk estimates the probability of the maneuver succeeding in the next mission at 50%.

Future spacecraft 2 and 3 compared to the current system. Pay attention to changes in the size of the front aerodynamic surfaces, the hot separation sector and the Super Heavy (SpaceX) control networks.
Spacecraft 1, 2 and 3 (SpaceX).

Meanwhile, work continues on a second orbital launch tower a short distance away from the first, a tower that will include several improvements and will use shorter pickup arms in the Micazilla system to allow it to move faster (parts of the second tower have been transported to Texas by barge from SpaceX facilities In Florida) despite the rumors, this second tower will be used for launch operations and not just stage capture. Oddly enough, we only learned a day ago from the Environmental Impact Report that SpaceX is planning to build a tower just for the stage set on ramp 39A of KSC in Florida The same report, more information is provided about the characteristics of Starship 2: it will carry 35 Raptors in Super Heavy instead of 33 and, as we already know, 9 Raptors in Starship instead of the current 6 Starship 3, the “final” version of which will be able to put up To 200 tons in low Earth orbit and will be 150 meters high, it will carry 4,100 tons of propellant in Super Heavy and 2,600 tons in Starship. The first launch of the 39A spacecraft is scheduled for the end of 2025. SpaceX plans to carry out up to 44 launches of the vehicle annually. Starship of these facilities in the future.

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Future SpaceX facilities on ramp 39A (FAA).
Spacecraft V3 (FAA).

When will Starship 2 enter service? Well, there are starships from version 1 to S32, so the logical thing is that from the seventh mission onwards, but there may be changes. The first Starship V2 may also be released by Super Heavy V1. We will know soon. In addition to recovery, SpaceX’s priority now is to prove it can perform a brake burn before reaching orbit, something it must do at IFT-5, which Musk says will be done within a month (I’m betting in August). . On the other hand, Musk stepped up and said that he could launch a spacecraft to Mars within three years. This surprising statement came after the fall of S29. Since only the front tanks will be used to land on Mars, well isolated and safe from losses, nothing prevents them from trying them out. It will apparently be an unmanned mission and will be two to four months long (Musk has not gone through the nightmare of certifying the spacecraft under current planetary protection protocols).

Details of the 2025 Propellant Transfer to Orbit Test Mission (NASA).

But NASA’s priority is not Mars, but the Moon. Starship will launch the HLS lunar module for the Artemis III and IV missions. To do this, it must prove that it is capable of transporting propellant into orbit (remember that these missions will launch the HLS, an orbital depot and several space cargo ships to deliver the fuel to the depot, which, in turn, will finally transfer the propellant to the HLS). In 2025, SpaceX should demonstrate this capability for the first time with two Starship launches in a row. First, one spacecraft with an active docking system will be launched into orbit, then another with a passive docking system will be launched, which will dock with the first spacecraft and transfer fuel. For NASA, this recharging capacity is an absolute priority over reuse. After all, you could launch an HLS vehicle to the Moon with a bunch of disposable spacecraft. Whether SpaceX can get the HLS ready before China puts two humans on the moon before the end of 2030 depends on this and subsequent missions.

References:

  • https://www.faa.gov/media/80626

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