(ORDO NEWS) — The fate of the fourth full-scale Starship SpaceX prototype seems to be in limbo after a third (seemingly successful) firing test with the engine turned on.
Now, more than 12 hours after Starship SN4 launched its new Raptor engine, the prototype is ~ 30 meters high and ~ 9 meters wide, obviously, with partially filled fuel tanks under pressure (methane and / or oxygen). The initial closure of the road, scheduled from noon to 6 p.m., has ended and since then SpaceX and Cameron County Texas have changed the paperwork, extending the closure by another 24 hours.
In other words, SpaceX has reason to believe that the Starship SN4 can remain unsafe (i.e. under pressure) about 30 hours after it technically completed its third static engine test – it’s extremely unusual, to say the least.
There is only one obvious conclusion. There was something else invisible to the public eye or damage caused by an abnormal fire that burned for about 15 minutes after the Raptor engine was turned off. SpaceX – to some extent – has lost control of the Starship SN4.
At the moment, it is unclear what is wrong and what SpaceX is trying to do to solve this problem. Based on Starship SN4 photos taken before the fire, there is good and bad news from what can be publicly installed. Driven from the ground by unprotected wires pulled up and down the rocket and connected at its base, uncontrolled fire that burned out at least in two places around the Starship aft could break some or all of these critical connections to the control center.
This would make Starship almost completely unmanageable, as well as potentially deny SpaceX access to telemetry. In other words, the company at present may not have an idea of how tight all or part of Starship SN4 is tight, and may also have little or no control over some parts or all of the rocket. Starship SN4, however, had to have radio links capable of sending telemetry and receiving commands during future flight tests.
Starship SN4 may have the necessary equipment installed, but it has not been activated for a static fire test (think: “Starship will never take off, why do we need to turn on wireless control?”). It is also possible that a methane pipe leak, which appears to have caused a secondary fire, damaged critical fuel management equipment (valves, pumps, etc.) or was just a symptom of an even more serious overpressure event that damaged or destroyed several such systems.
Given that security is almost certainly a priority, it is likely that some combination of a fairly small hardware failure and loss of telemetry / control left SpaceX in an attempt to risk sending technicians to the launch pad to check for damage and regain control. As a result, the only remaining option is to literally sit and wait until a safe opportunity appears to approach the rocket. Fortunately, the risk of exploding Starship SN4 is very low at the moment. If, as it turns out, the problem affects only its methane tank, in which some unknown amount of liquid methane is left, it is possible that waiting will really solve the problem and save the rocket.
The fact that Starship has not yet exploded suggests that the amount of remaining rocket fuel is negligible or that the vast majority of SN4 fuel management systems (including air vents) remain operational. Assuming this is the case, any remaining cryogenic propellant will eventually boil and turn into gas, increasing pressure inside Starship tanks, while the tanks will continue to release excess pressure through valves to prevent explosion or bursting. Eventually, the Starship SN4 will be empty again, and SpaceX technicians will be able to get closer to the rocket to regain control and begin inspections and repairs.
Despite this, after such an incident, it is highly unlikely that SN4 will be ready for its first flight tests in the next few days.
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