SpaceX has successfully ignited all six engines of its latest prototype spacecraft, taking an important step to ensure the upper stage will be ready for the rocket’s first orbital launch attempt.
Unfortunately, the same successful static firing of a Starship upper stage – potentially producing almost twice as much thrust as the booster from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – superheated debris scattered hundreds of feet away, starting a large brush fire. This isn’t the first major fire caused by Starship operations in South Texas, and it likely won’t be the last.
The S24 ship completed its first successful static fire on August 9, igniting two Raptor engines. Several failed attempts to test more engines followed throughout the month, and SpaceX finally decided to replace one of Starship S24’s three Raptor Vacuum engines in early September before trying again. After workers installed the new engine and closed Ship 24, the stars finally aligned on September 8.
Initiating the test, SpaceX pumped several hundred tons of liquid oxygen (LOx) and a much smaller amount of liquid methane (LCH4) into Ship 24 in about 90 minutes, producing a crusty layer of frost wherever the liquids cryogenics touched the skin of the rocket’s uninsulated steel tanks. No frost formed on Starship’s upper methane tank, implying that SpaceX only loaded methane into internal “header” tanks intended to store propellant for landings. The hundreds of tons of liquid oxygen were therefore probably intended to act as ballast, reducing the maximum stress that Starship could exert on the test bed keeping it on the ground.
This potential stress is considerable. Fitted with upgraded Raptor 2 engines, Starship S24 could have produced up to 1,380 tons (~3 M lbf) of thrust when it first ignited all six at 4:30 p.m. CDT. In addition to breaking the record for the most thrust produced in a Starbase rocket test, Ship 24’s engines burned for nearly 8 seconds, making it one of the longest static fires ever on Earth. a Starship test bed.
Several bushfires were visible almost immediately after the dust and steam clouds cleared. More likely than not, the combination of extreme force, heat, and burning time likely obliterated the almost entirely unprotected concrete surface beneath Vessel 24. Despite continued evidence that all static fire operations of Starship would be easier and safer with the systems, SpaceX still refuses to install serious water deluge or flame deflector systems on Starbase test beds and launch pads.
Instead, beneath its steel Starship testbeds, SpaceX relies on a single medium deluge spray nozzle and high-temperature concrete (likely martyte) that probably wouldn’t pass the mark for a rocket ten times less. powerful than Starship. In several cases, starships have shattered this weak layer of martyte, creating high-velocity ceramic shards that damage their undersides or Raptor engines, requiring repairs and creating risky situations. With virtually no attempt to tame the Raptor exhaust at several thousand degrees at high speed, so static fire tests at Starbase almost always start small grass fires and cause minor damage, but those fires rarely spread.
Ship 24’s first six-engine test was not so lucky, although the Starship apparently managed to escape unscathed. Most likely, eight long seconds of blast furnace conditions melted the surrounding top layer of concrete and hurled a hailstorm of tiny, superheated globules in nearly every direction. Indeed, in almost every direction there was something that could easily burn, a fire broke out. In several places to the south and west, brushwood caught fire and began to burn unusually aggressively, quickly turning into walls of flame that spread across the terrain. To the east, debris even ended up in a SpaceX dumpster, the contents of which easily caught fire and burned for hours.
Eventually, around 9 p.m. CDT, firefighters were able to approach the secured launch pad and rocket, but the main fire had already spread south out of range. Instead, they started controlled burns near SpaceX’s roadblock, hoping to clear brush and keep the fire (although unlikely) from heading towards SpaceX’s Starbase factory and the houses and residents of the village of Boca Chica.
The estuary-like nature of the terrain and wetlands means it is very easy to stop fires at choke points, so the fire likely never posed a real threat to Boca Chica residents, SpaceX employees, or onlookers. It was also unlikely to damage SpaceX’s launch facilities or return to damage Starship S24 from the start, as both are surrounded by a combination of concrete aprons, empty dirt fields and a highway.
Still, the fire-scorched “brush” is protected habitat located in a state park and wildlife refuge. Although fire is a natural and often necessary part of many habitats, including some of those in Boca Chica, this is the second major bushfire caused by Starship testing since 2019, which may be less than desirable. . At a minimum, firefighting around Starbase typically requires firefighters to walk or even drive over protected wetlands and salt flats, the impact of which could ultimately be as detrimental to wildlife and habitats as the fire itself. .
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of SpaceX, which fully informed existing Starbase Texas facilities and the company’s launch plans earlier this year, only discusses the fires [PDF] a handful of times. However, repairing and preventing future damage to wetlands comes up dozens of times and is subject to numerous conditions that SpaceX must meet before the FAA grants Starship an orbital launch license.
Ultimately, since the FAA approved this PEA with full knowledge of a bushfire 2019 caused by Starhopper (an early Starship prototype) which may have been as bad or worse than 2022, there’s a chance it’s playing a little role in the ongoing launch licensing process, but the odds of him being a hindrance are close to zero. Still, it would likely benefit SpaceX at least as much as the surrounding wilderness of Boca Chica if it could implement changes that would prevent large bushfires from becoming a regular “accidental” event.
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