SpaceX's future may be linked to the new Raptor rocket engines by Elon Musk


Elon Musk debuted a huge rocket engine on Sunday that he said can deliver "insane power" – the kind of force your aerospace company, SpaceX, needs to launch people on the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Musk shared two videos of a motor the size of a truck called Raptor vomiting flames and making noise noises at the SpaceX rocket testing facility in McGregor, Texas. The company conducted the static fire test, as it is called, in support of a reusable launch system that is developing, called Starship-Super Heavy.

SpaceX is designing Starship as an approximately 18-story stainless steel spacecraft that can carry about 150 tons of cargo and 100 people to the surface of Mars. Spacecraft will rotate in orbit around the Earth in the Super Heavy, a colossal rocket that can be 22 stories high.

"First shot of the Starship Raptor flight engine! So proud of the @SpaceX team's excellent work !!" Musk tweeted on Sunday, sharing the photo above.

SpaceX tested a smaller, more experimental version of the Raptor in 2016, but Sunday's test was for a large-scale flight version.

Marco Cáceres, a senior space analyst at Teal Group, who studies the aerospace and defense industry, said the recent successful test is big business.

"If this had been a failure, it would mean going back to the drawing board, a delay of six months and a cost of billions in terms of the rapid development cycle in which they are," Cáceres told Business Insider.

But SpaceX has not yet passed the Raptor engine testing program, which may be critical to the company's future.

Much more than Starship will enjoy the success of Raptor

By the end of last year, the Starship-Super Heavy system was called Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. The rebranding was in November 2018, when Musk said the project was being radically redesigned. His plan now is to build the system from stainless steel alloys instead of lightweight carbon fiber composites.

To test the fundamentals of the system, SpaceX has been building a trial version of the Starship vehicle at its launch site in South Texas. This "test hopper" will not reach the orbit; instead, it does not go more than 16,400 feet in the air and lands back on the ground.

After the repairs on the rocket, which fell last month, these tests can begin in March. A vehicle capable of reaching the orbit can be built this summer, Musk said.

See More Information: SpaceX's giant rocket was damaged by strong winds in Texas – the nose of the plane exploded, and Elon Musk says the repairs will take weeks

Seeing the test fly would be exciting, but analysts will be following closely the progress of the Raptor engines: Each spacecraft can use seven of the devices, while Super Heavy can have up to 31 Raptors.

"The Starship-Super Heavy program basically depends on that engine. If the engine fails, the program will fail," said Cáceres.

An illustration of the "test hopper" of SpaceX, a stainless steel experimental ship.
Elon Musk / SpaceX via Twitter; Samantha Lee / Business Insider

The health of SpaceX itself may also depend on the reliability of these Raptor mechanisms, of which there will be several versions developed.

If Starship can be fully reusable, as currently planned, this should make the system much cheaper to launch than anything existing – including SpaceX's own Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Musk has repeatedly said that Starship will eventually replace all the other launchers of his company.

"What they are trying to do seems crazy to me and to many people in the industry. They want to reuse these engines hundreds of times, which has never been done," said Cáceres about the Raptor project. "These engines have to function like the engine of your car: you call, you go, and you never expect it to explode."

Cáceres expects to see about three to five static Raptor fire tests before the engines fly.

"So you do one or two test releases, so you throw a payload," he said. "In the Musk timeline, you do not have a decade to do that as NASA would. It's moving at a very, very fast pace."

& # 39; Extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead & # 39;

An illustration of the constellation of SpaceX's thousands of Starlink satellites to provide high speed, low latency global internet.
Mark Handley / UCL; YouTube

SpaceX is struggling with tight deadlines for Starship and another big project.

Musk hopes to put the first experimental spacecraft into orbit perhaps in 2020 or 2021. By 2022, Musk set an aspirational goal to launch uncharged cargo missions toward Mars. Depending on the ability of Raptor engines to accelerate Starship (and thus shorten travel time), these missions would land on the Red Planet later that year or early 2023. He then wants to use the system to launch Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa at around the planet. moon with a team of artists in 2023.

If Martian cargo missions and manned missions are successful, SpaceX will be able to launch the first manned mission to Mars in 2024. Birds of prey engines burn methane and oxygen – both chemicals that Musk believes a crew could generate on Mars for a trip back to Earth.

See More Information: Elon Musk says SpaceX is on its way to launch people into Mars within 6 years – that's the complete timeline of your plans to populate the red planet

Starship – and by Raptor extension – may also be essential to SpaceX's efforts to launch Starlink: a network of satellites that Musk wants to use to cover Earth on ultra-high-speed broadband Internet.

SpaceX plans to make Starship capable of launching satellites; each launch of Starship could, in theory, deploy hundreds of Starlink satellites at once. (SpaceX already has experience helping to deploy dozens of satellites at once.) This capability would allow the company to more quickly establish Starlink as a functional and profitable service. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017 that Starlink could bring $ 30 billion in revenue to SpaceX by 2025 – dramatically more than it does in its rocket launch business.

According to FCC documents, SpaceX has until November 2024 to launch at least half of its planned 11,943 satellites, and until December 2027 to launch the rest.

But Caceres said that seeking Starship and Starlink almost entirely from private funding forced SpaceX to act quickly and also exposed the company to the risk of staff cuts. In January 2019, quoting the "extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead" to meet its goals, SpaceX sacked 10% of its workforce.

"They are under financial pressure because all these programs are happening at the same time," Cáceres said. "Musk never had the impression that it would be cheap. [Starship] it would cost $ 2 to $ 10 billion to develop, which means they really do not know how much it will cost to develop. But clearly it's in the billions. At this cost, you realize that you can not afford to have too many delays. "

An illustration of SpaceX's Starship-Super Heavy system, formerly called the Big Falcon Rocket.

Taxpayers' Dollars can still help fund Starship; Caceres said that NASA is probably waiting to see if the system is feasible, as it can replace the Space Launcher (SLS) launcher, which is not reusable and increasingly expensive.

"What if [NASA] "You can rely on private industry to fund and develop bigger and more powerful rockets at the expense of the company itself, it does not make sense to continue with SLS," he said.

The associate administrator of NASA also once expressed this idea to the Business Insider, but the agency later resumed its comments.

The success of the Raptor engine is central to all of SpaceX's great ambitions – for the viability of Starship, the complete and rapid launch of Starlink and the trips to Mars. In this sense, the fate of the company seems to be linked to that of its engine.

"The biggest danger is that SpaceX moves too fast," said Cáceres about Raptor and Starship. "If something like that blows up and there are people on board, that kills the program."


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