Perhaps just two minutes away from ignition, the SpaceX Starship SN9 prototype aborted its third Raptor static firing attempt late in the January 12 test window.
Already extended from 5 PM Central American Time (UTC-6) to 8 PM CST, SpaceX has already begun clearing test facilities near the original end of the window and has begun loading the second spacecraft fully assembled with liquid oxygen and methane fuel around an hour. 7 or 7:30 pm. At 7:58 PM, a local mayor set off a police siren to warn any locals or workers of an impending test – required in the event of an explosion (“an overpressure event”), which could degrade into shattered glass windows and pose a public hazard.
Now, a familiar and familiar process to the Starship’s unofficial followers, the siren (albeit inaccurately) serves as a rough mark of T-10 for any kind of dangerous test. Hoping to correct two previous unsuccessful steady fire attempts, Starship SN9 is probably only 2-3 minutes away from second ignition before an unknown problem causes SpaceX’s ground controllers or the spacecraft itself to cause a miscarriage.
Head-raising abortions in the form of a large, simultaneous ventilation opening to pressure from the methane and oxygen tanks at Starship SN9, are an equally familiar occurrence to those who have followed along for the past year or two. The Starships may have taken some amazing leaps forward in 2020, but the software and prototypes it currently produces are still relatively immature, in other words, not quite polished and polished end products.
In 2020 alone, SpaceX destroyed the SN1 spacecraft during a stress test, dropped (and destroyed) SN3 with the wrong test design, experienced an SN4 violently exploding, and eventually Starships SN5, SN6, and SN8 – but not before several false starts, frustrations, and fixes. Through a hardware-rich trial-and-error process, SpaceX was able to go from completing its first single-piece steel ring to successfully launching the nearly fully assembled Starship SN8 at a distance of 12.5 km (7.8 mi) in twelve Months.
While this sheer speed has been a huge boon for SpaceX, the company appears to have gotten a lot more cautious in recent months with the introduction of the first full-altitude ships – each presumably representing a more substantial investment and thus warranting additional risk aversion. At the same time, it is clear that the Starship is a very complex launch vehicle and that complexity only grows as the program progresses, producing more and more complex prototypes that require equivalent complex tests.
The SN8 spacecraft spent nearly two months at the launch pad gradually completing several crucial tests before SpaceX eventually evacuated the rocket to attempt to launch the program at a high altitude on December 11. As of January 12, Starship SN9 has been on the catwalk for three weeks. Meanwhile, Starship SN10 is practically ready to begin testing and the SN11 can be equipped a few weeks later.
The next (fourth) steady-firing attempt of Starship SN9 is now expected no later than Wednesday 13 January, although that could quickly change depending on the severity of the problem that caused the miscarriage on Tuesday.