The rush to build and test prototypes of NASA’s human landing system that will allow astronauts to land on the lunar surface has intensified. Contracts for the vehicle were awarded to three companies earlier this year. Two of the three provided details of their models for the system. The third, SpaceX, is busy testing prototypes at its plant in Boca Chica, Texas. These prototypes belong to the upper stage of Starship’s launch vehicle platform, which intends to completely replace its range of Falcon launch vehicles.
SpaceX Starship’s upcoming hop will be the first to integrate key structural elements
So far, SpaceX has conducted two non-prototype jumps of its Starship upper-stage spaceship. The “vehicle” in these tests consists mainly of its fuel tanks and a single Raptor engine. This configuration differs greatly from the final vehicle design, which will use six Raptor engines, features flaps for directional control, and has a nose pad at the top. The nose will serve mission-specific purposes, with SpaceX intending to use it for manned and unmanned missions.
On this front, company CEO and chief engineer Elon Musk revealed key details for the spacecraft’s SN8 prototype. Contrary to what the name suggests, this isn’t the eighth test item SpaceX has built, as the company changed its nomenclature for prototypes late last year.
The SN8 test vehicle will feature both nose pads and lugs, Musk revealed. More importantly, it will also be the first Starship prototype to use three engines for testing. Additionally, if SpaceX’s plans follow the course, SN8 will also experience the highest starship jump to date.
However, instead of the 12-mile (63,000-foot) altitude the company highlighted in an FCC document, the upcoming test will target 9 miles (50,000 feet). Additionally, the vehicle’s front flaps will also be powered by electric motors rather than a hydraulic system, fulfilling another key design goal. This will also remove some of the dangerous chemicals required by plumbing.
The SN8 spacecraft will initially fly at an altitude of 50,000 feet, lower than previous estimates
NASA approved SpaceX’s plans to use Starship as a human lunar lander prior to the aforementioned contract being awarded. Musk also expressed his confidence in the company’s ability to build the vehicle for the space agency. Addressing the Human to Mars 2020 Summit earlier this month, the executive said:
“We know how to build a complex life support system that can deal with a wide range of environments. You know, by changing atmospheric pressure, by changing the percentage of oxygen / nitrogen in the air. We have made space suits that can withstand the depressurization of the total vacuum and in terms of filtering CO2 and other things people breathe, ”said Musk. “For a longer mission, like Mars, you want to have a more renewable system than we have on Crew Dragon [SpaceX’s spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station], you want to recycle things, you know, recycle water a lot more, oxygen a lot more. But yes, going to the moon, no problem. “
The lower altitude will mark the first step in a new series of jumps that will test high altitude endurance and speed. Additionally, Musk also revealed that he will allow SpaceX to test the newly added body flaps and vehicle power systems.
In addition to Starship, the National Team (made up of four companies) and Dynetics Inc are the companies chosen by NASA for the lunar lander. The national team, consisting of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper Laboratory, delivered its prototype to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. Dynetics shared details for its HLS prototype earlier this month. The company revealed how it is testing the vehicle’s crew compatibility with the help of astronaut Colonel Lee Archambault. Archambault spent 26 days in space and flew two space shuttle missions, one of which (STS-119) he commanded in 2009.
If the jump is successful, SpaceX will have canceled an important step in its test for the HLS program. However, key parameters such as vehicle landing on the lunar surface, propulsion and fueling systems will need to be validated by NASA before the vehicle is certified for missions. SpaceX has promised NASA to test the spaceship’s upper stage with the Falcon Heavy in 2022, and the tests will determine the agency’s confidence in Starship.