SpaceX has taken its first steps toward launching orbital Starships, jump-starting assembly of the world's first Super Heavy booster, according to a recent thread from NASA Space Flight.
While this only marks the assembly of the first-stage rocket, it's essential for the future of recoverable spaceship missions to low-Earth orbit, the moon, and beyond.
SpaceX kicks-off Starship Super Heavy assembly in South Texas
Technically, SpaceX could build much smaller booster prototypes for the initial test flights into orbit — this might be done via modifying the tank design of Starship — but rocketry isn't an exceedingly modular enterprise, Teslarati reports.
However, whether the move comes via confidence or contingency, SpaceX is jumping directly into Starship prototype development, toward a full-scale Super Heavy booster production and testing platform.
Super Heavy booster will be the largest in the world
The first signs of Super Heavy assembly came when booster rings (named so) were seen around Sept. 22 — and in the roughly six weeks since, SpaceX's Boca Chica, Texas facility has pursued at least the same number of booster rings, stacked and strewn throughout the ever-expanding campus.
The Super Heavy tank section relies on a tank design nearly identical to tried-and-true hardware — which was proven in flight on two previous Starship prototypes. Consequently, SpaceX uses the same manufacturing infrastructure for most of the Starship and the Super Heavy, Teslarati reports.
Indeed, in an inversion of the typical relationship, the next-gen rocket's booster will probably be much simpler than the upper stage — which would be the largest spacecraft with reusable parts and upper stage in the world.
Super Heavy could be one of SpaceX's easiest projects
Lacking a need for a tiled heat shield, aerodynamic control surfaces (discounting Falcon-style grid fins), a conical nose, and possibly even internal header tanks, the only serious challenge Super Heavy faces for the first time is developing an engine section capable of feeding and supporting up to 28 Raptor engines.
Only need 2 engines— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 28, 2020
In simpler terms, so long as the elementary aspects of Starship design work out, and SpaceX can design a reliable 28-Raptor thrust architecture (along with internal plumbing), Super Heavy could be substantially easier to complete than earlier projects of the company.
Super Heavy will have twice the thrust of NASA's Saturn V
Moving past theory, Starship and Super Heavy will without doubt be the largest spacecraft, rocket booster, and upper stage ever constructed — whether they take us to space or not. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently said the Super Heavy booster could carry out hop tests using only two of its Raptor engines — if necessary — but the rocket will eventually have 20 high-thrust Raptor engines capable of minimal throttle, along with an inner-ring of eight throttle- and gimbal-capable engines to execute highly-precise maneuvers.
Once all 28 engines are working at full thrust, the Super Heavy design will exert an impressive 14.5 lbf (6,600 metric tons) of thrust during liftoff — roughly twice NASA's Saturn V rocket of the Apollo missions, in addition to the Soviet N-1 rockets, and more than thrice the thrust of SpaceX's veteran rocket — the Falcon Heavy.
Super Heavy booster might be complete in one month
The Super Heavy will be roughly 230 ft (70 m) tall, weigh at least 7.7 million lbs (3,500 metric tons) when loaded with liquid oxygen and methane propellant. Without the Starship hoisted above it, the Super Heavy alone will stand as tall or taller than Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and any other working rocket on the planet.
Officially called the "BN1," the Super Heavy booster hardware's bay — which is roughly 270 ft (83 m) tall — will probably see continuous activity as SpaceX teams work to stack and weld the gigantic steel rocket together.
Crucial to Starship's first recoverable launch attempts into orbit, we don't yet know how SpaceX will bring the first completed Super Heavy up to speed, nor what the initial booster-supported Starship launches will involve, specifically. But bracketing major snags during assembly, the Super Heavy booster number 1 (BN1) might be effectively complete in one or two months.