SpaceX tests Starship water deluge system for second time without permit

SpaceX has officially completed its second successful test of Starship's water deluge system. However, this water might be considered industrial waste under environmental law.
Christopher McFadden
Screenshot from footage released by SpaceX.


SpaceX officially tested its water deluge system for the second time at its Starship launch pad on Thursday, July 27.

The technology is meant to absorb the majority of the immense exhaust released from the Starship's first-stage boosters, helping to protect the launch pad as well as reducing potentially harmful airborne particles from the launch.

Considerably more powerful than the first test 10 days earlier, the footage is a must-watch for anyone interested in the progress of the Starship project.

Fire and water

Reportedly, the demonstration took place at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, at 2:10 pm Eastern Time. During the test, vast quantities of water shot upwards below the orbital launch mount (OLM) for around 40 seconds. As impressive as this test is, it is still only a fraction of the system's full potential. While the exact details are not officially publically known, SpaceX is on record claiming that it could discharge as much as 350,000 gallons (1.3 million liters) of water during launches of Starship.

The test appears to have been a complete success and would be activated synchronously with the ignition of Starship's 33 mighty "Raptor" engines. As mentioned, the system is designed to protect the launch pad during Starship launches and prove the company's readiness for another launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In addition, SpaceX has installed a metal diverter beneath the OLM to improve its protective capabilities further. The system has been designed and installed in response to environmental concerns around the first ill-fated launch of Starship on April 20, 2023. The OLM was significantly damaged during this test, releasing dust and debris into the surrounding area. As a result of this incident, the FAA is facing legal action for approving the launch, while Starship remains grounded until further investigation.

But, even given the improvements made to the OLM with this new water deluge and metal plate diverter, CNBC has noted that SpaceX is yet to acquire suitable permits for its use. According to CNBC, they have "learned that the company didn’t apply for the environmental permits that would typically allow it to discharge industrial process wastewater into the area surrounding that launchpad."

According to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state's environmental regulatory body, SpaceX has not yet applied for a Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (TPDES) permit at its Starbase facility as of July 28. The spokesperson also confirmed that the site obtained three stormwater permit authorizations.

“The determination of whether a discharge permit is needed is the responsibility of the business owner based on how they plan to manage wastewater,” the TCEQ wrote in an email to CNBC. The regulator added that the state agency has been discussing industrial permitting with SpaceX.

“Industrial process water is a regulated pollutant under the Clean Water Act,” environmental engineer Eric Roesch told CNBC in an interview. “Heat, silt, and a range of chemicals that mix into wastewater will degrade the biological integrity of any surrounding wetlands and erode water quality over time," he added.

No permit authorized (yet)

According to Roesch, permits are granted when industrial wastewater is treated and disposed of appropriately. In the United States, launch sites that use water-based cooling systems, such as "deluge", have permits equivalent to a TPDES from the Space Shuttle era.

Based on the Environmental Protection Agency's website, individuals or companies who knowingly or negligently release pollutants into the waters of the United States from a "point source" without a permit may face criminal enforcement actions. Penalties for such actions may include imprisonment and fines ranging from $2,500 to $50,000 per day.

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