A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship Mars-colonization spacecraft blew its lid in a crucial pressure test late Tuesday (Jan. 28) in a big test for the private spaceflight company.
During a cryogenic strength test at the company’s South Texas facility near the village of Boca Chica, SpaceX filled the prototype’s 30-foot (9 meters) test tank with ultracold liquid nitrogen and pressurized the tank until it “popped.” This video was captured by Spadre.com, a tourism information site for the nearby South Padre Island that offers live camera views of SpaceX’s Starship work.
While the destructive test may not look like good news for the private spaceflight company, this event actually represents a major milestone for Starship. It demonstrated that the fuel tank can withstand the pressure it would experience on future human missions to the moon and Mars.
Liquid nitrogen cryogenic strength test underway ☃️ pic.twitter.com/qRPBLInqm0January 29, 2020
The Starship’s test tank reached an internal pressure of 8.5 bar, or about 8.5 times the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted after the test. And that’s exactly how much pressure Starship will need to be able to endure to be considered safe for astronauts.
Earlier this month, Musk tweeted that the spacecraft would need to withstand a pressure of 6 bar for an orbital flight without humans onboard. For safety reasons, a crewed mission would raise that requirement by a factor of 1.4, which is why the spacecraft needs to endure a pressure of 8.5 bar to safely fly astronauts.
Tuesday’s test follows a similar evaluation SpaceX performed earlier this week, when the spacecraft’s tank reached a pressure of 7.5 bar before springing a leak, Musk tweeted on Monday (Jan. 27). “Small leak at a weld doubler. Will be repaired & retested at cryo,” he said.
SpaceX still has a lot of work to do before it can launch people to space on its new Starship. The company is currently building its newest Starship prototype, the SN1, at its Boca Chica facility. An earlier version, a fully assembled rocket prototype called Mk1, was destroyed in a cryogenic test in November. After that anomaly, SpaceX discontinued the development of Mk1 and a nearly identical prototype called Mk2, which was being built on Florida’s Space Coast.
“We’re now building flight design of Starship SN1, but each SN will have at least minor improvements, at least through SN20 or so of Starship V1.0,” Musk tweeted on Dec. 27, 2019, adding that the SN1 could be ready for its first test flight in just a few months.
If all goes according to plan, SpaceX could start launching satellites as early as 2021, followed by uncrewed moon missions for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in 2022. The company also plans to launch a private crewed mission called “#dearMOON” on a flight around the moon in 2023. SpaceX has not offered an official timeline for Starship’s Mars missions, but Musk has suggested that the spacecraft could help establish a human Mars base by 2028.