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SpaceX takes big step toward Super Heavy’s first orbital flight

SpaceX has finished attaching 29 Raptor engines to its almighty Super Heavy booster.

The work, completed on Monday, August 2, takes SpaceX a big step toward the first orbital test flight of its powerful next-generation rocket that will carry with it the new Starship spacecraft.

SpaceX's Super Heavy Raptor engines.

SpaceX tweeted a stunning photo (above) taken at the company’s Starbase facility in South Texas showing the 29 Raptor engines in place. Several more are expected to be added following initial test flights.

With Starship on top, the Super Heavy rocket will stand at a colossal 120 meters high, making it the tallest launch vehicle ever built. But more significantly, it will feature the greatest thrust capability even seen in a rocket, which at 72 meganewtons will be just over twice that of the Saturn V vehicle that launched humans to the moon five decades ago.

When will Super Heavy fly?

The date of Super Heavy’s highly anticipated orbital test flight is yet to be announced, in part because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently conducting an environmental review to assess the suitability of SpaceX’s South Texas site for orbital launches. Just a couple of months ago, the FAA warned SpaceX that the launch tower it’s building for the Super Heavy is unapproved and therefore may have to be taken down, depending on the results of the FAA’s review.

The review will first be published as a draft, after which the public can offer comments. Other steps will then follow before the FAA issues a final assessment. Assuming everything goes in SpaceX’s favor, it’s likely to be at least several months before it gets to launch Super Heavy.

Once it gets going, successful testing of Super Heavy will pave the way for SpaceX’s long-term plan to use the rocket to launch crewed missions to the moon, Mars, and possibly beyond.

Flight plan

A recent filing with the FAA outlined SpaceX’s plan for the first orbital test flight of Super Heavy and Starship. It revealed that around 170 seconds into flight, the spacecraft will detach from the booster, with the first stage coming down in waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Starship will continue on a flight path designed to take it into orbit for the first time. A short while later, it will descend and carry out a powered, targeted splashdown off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The mission, from Super Heavy’s launch to Starship’s splashdown, is likely to last around 90 minutes.

Both Super Heavy and Starship are designed to be reused, with upright landings of both sections expected to be a common feature of future missions — similar to how SpaceX already lands its Falcon 9 boosters. The commercial space company successfully landed Starship at the end of a high-altitude test flight in May following a number of failed attempts, but it may be a while before we see the larger Super Heavy return in the same way.

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Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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