SpaceX Speeds Ahead With Key Prototype For NASA Moon Lander Program

Sep 27, 2020 12:47 EDT
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The race for building and testing prototypes of NASA's Human Landing System that will enable astronauts to land on the lunar surface has intensified. Contracts for the vehicle were awarded to three companies earlier this year. Two of the three have provided details of their mockups for the system. The third, SpaceX, is busy testing prototypes in its facility in Boca Chica, Texas. These prototypes belong to the company's upper stage of the Starship launch vehicle platform – which intends to completely replace its existing Falcon launch vehicle lineup.

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So far, SpaceX has conducted two non-prototype hops of its upper stage Starship spacecraft. The 'vehicle' in these tests consists primarily of its fuel tanks and a single Raptor engine. This configuration differs vastly from the vehicle's final design, which will use six Raptor engines, feature flaps for directional control and have a nosecone at the top. The nosecone will serve mission-specific purposes, with SpaceX intending to use it for crewed and uncrewed missions.

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At this front, the company's chief executive and chief engineer Elon Musk revealed key details for the spacecraft's SN8 prototype. As opposed to what the name suggests, this is not the eighth test article that SpaceX has built, as the company changed its nomenclature for the prototypes late last year.

The SN8 test vehicle will feature both the nosecone and flaps, revealed Musk. More importantly, it will also be the first Starship prototype to use three engines for testing. Furthermore, if SpaceX's plans follow course, then SN8 will also undergo the highest Starship altitude hop to date.

However, Instead of the 12-mile (63,000 feet) altitude that the company highlighted in an FCC filing, the upcoming test will target 9 miles (50,000 feet). Additionally, the vehicle's forward flaps will also be powered by electric motors instead of a hydraulic system, fulfilling another key design objective. This will also remove some of the hazardous chemicals that hydraulics require.

Starship SN8 Will Initially Fly At An Altitude of 50,000 Feet, Lower Than Earlier Estimates

NASA has approved SpaceX's plans to use Starship as a human lunar lander prior to the aforementioned contract award. Musk has also expressed his confidence in the company's ability to build the vehicle for the space agency. Addressing the Human to Mars 2020 summit earlier this month, the executive stated:

"We know how to make a complex life support system that can deal with a wide range of environments. You know, changing atmospheric pressure, changing the Oxygen/Nitrogen percentage in the air. We've made spacesuits capable of taking total vacuum depressurization and in terms of filtering out CO2 and other stuff that people breathe," stated Musk. "For a longer mission, like Mars, you want to have a more renewable system than what we have on Crew Dragon [SpaceX's spacecraft for missions to the International Space Station], you'd want to recycle things, you know, recycle water a lot more, Oxygen a lot more. But, yeah going to the Moon, no problem."

The lower altitude will mark the first step a fresh set of hops that will test endurance at high altitude and speed. Additionally, Musk also revealed that it will enable SpaceX to test the newly added body flaps and the vehicle's fuel systems.

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In addition to Starship, the National Team (consisting of four companies) and Dynetics Inc are the companies chosen by NASA for the lunar lander. The National Team, which consists of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper Laboratory has delivered its prototype to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas. Dynetics shared details for its HLS prototype earlier this month. The company revealed how it is testing the vehicle's crew compatibility with the aid of astronaut Colonel Lee Archambault. Archambault has spent 26 days in space and flown on two space shuttle missions, one of which (STS-119) he commanded in 2009.

Should the hop be successful, then SpaceX will have cleared an important step in its testing for the HLS program. However, key parameters such as landing the vehicle on the lunar surface, propulsion and refueling systems will have to be validated by NASA before the vehicle is certified for missions. SpaceX has promised to NASA to test the Starship upper stage with the Falcon Heavy in 2022, and the tests will determine the agency's confidence in Starship.

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