Elon Musk, it seems, had better things to do than watch football on Sunday. Early this morning, while much of America was sleeping off a dubious evening repast composed almost entirely of chip dip, alcohol, and corn starch, Musk and the SpaceX team were prepping for the first full firing test of a Raptor engine intended to fly on the actual Starship.
This isn’t, therefore, the first time the Raptor engine has ever been fired — SpaceX has fired individual components before and experimented with various designs. According to Musk, this represents the “First firing of Starship Raptor flight engine,” implying that this is the first time the now-completed design has been assembled and fired in its intended spaceflight configuration.
Raptor has gone through a number of design changes — originally, SpaceX planned to mount it to the ITS launch vehicle back in 2016 (powered by 42 Raptor engines), before changing gears and unveiling its BFR rocket concept (officially known as “Super Heavy” for the first stage, and Starship for the second). The Super Heavy mounts 31 Raptor engines, while the Starship has seven.
The engine has been designed with a priority on lowering overall wear and tear and removing failure points that could limit its reusability or increase long-term operating costs. Unlike SpaceX’s Merlin engine, which runs on a mixture of RP-1 and LOX, the Raptor engine is fueled by cryogenic liquid methane and LOX. The Raptor uses subcooled methane (subcooling refers to keeping the temperature of the liquid well below its boiling point). Subcooling the methane allows SpaceX to increase the amount of propellant stored in the rocket. It increases specific impulse and reduces cavitation.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2019
The actual test burn only goes on for a few seconds, but yields tremendously valuable information about the actual performance of the rocket and its ability to ignite in a controlled fashion. The green glow in the exhaust near the end of the firing indicates the copper liner in the engine chamber burned by accident. While this should not have happened, it’s precisely to find these pain points that engineers conduct test firings in the first place.
There is no substitute for this kind of test-firing and, as Ars Technica notes, “any “first” test firing of a new, full-scale rocket engine that doesn’t end in an uncontrolled explosion is a good thing.” Ars also states that this specific engine may be deployed for “hopper” flights this year when SpaceX attempts to fly the Starship roughly 5km high, then land it again.
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