SpaceX conducted a full-pressure test of a new water deluge system for its Starship launch vehicle on Friday, as the company looks to resolve one of the biggest problems that cropped up during the orbital flight test in April.
It’s a major step toward making the launch infrastructure ready to support a second test flight of the world’s most powerful rocket. During the previous test flight, the heat and energy from the Super Heavy booster’s 33 Raptor engines cratered the launch pad and generated chunks of concrete that badly damaged the orbital launch mount.
SpaceX’s answer is what CEO Elon Musk called “a mega-steel pancake.” The water deluge system is composed of a very thick perforated steel plate that sits directly underneath the rocket and multiple huge water jets that continually cool it with water, even as it’s bombarded with flames from the rocket engine.
New water deluge system to protect against the immense heat & force of Starship launch pic.twitter.com/JMnBIH8UTM
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 28, 2023
It’s unclear exactly how much water is discharged during a full-pressure spray, but a 23-second video of the test posted on X by Musk suggests it’s quite a lot. CNBC reported on Friday, shortly after the test, that SpaceX did not apply for an environmental permit for disposing industrial process wastewater as required by the U.S. Clean Water Act.
However, it’s unclear whether SpaceX would even need such a permit. The big question is whether pollutants, like chemicals, will mix into the water as it sprays up at the rocket. If the answer is yes, SpaceX will need some process for disposing of that water and not simply letting it run off into the surrounding wetlands.
A representative from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) told CNBC that whether a discharge permit is needed “is the responsibility of the business owner based on how they plan to manage wastewater.” But in a separate line, the representative added that the agency is evaluating the new deluge system to see if any environmental regulations apply.
SpaceX does not seem overly concerned with this evaluation. Now that the steel plate is installed, the company is one step closer to conducting pre-launch testing on Booster 9, the Super Heavy prototype that will fly during the next test.
Of course, the timing of the next Starship flight test is not entirely up to SpaceX. The company must receive a green light from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the regulator with authority over all rocket launches, and which grounded Starship after the last test resulted in the rocket exploding in mid-air. Grounding the rocket was entirely expected and routine given the way the test concluded, but SpaceX still needs regulatory approval before the next flight test.
SpaceX is also a co-defendant, with the FAA, in a lawsuit over the agency’s environmental review of Starbase and the Starship launch program. That lawsuit, filed by environmental and Indigenous groups in May, alleges that the FAA failed to fully consider the environmental effects of SpaceX’s activity in the area. While that lawsuit is still in the very earliest stages, it could threaten to keep Starship grounded for years.