Yesterday the teams at SpaceX’s Starbase Starship facility received the first vacuum-optimized Raptor engine from Hawthorne. This is one of the most important pieces needed for an orbital Starship launch sometime this year.

First Raptor Vacuum arrives

Yesterday afternoon, a vacuum-optimized Raptor engine was spotted being unloaded from the back of a truck at SpaceX’s Starbase facility. This is the first time we’ve seen one outside of SpaceX’s Headquarters in Hawthorne, California or their test range in McGregor, Texas.

These vacuum Raptors are extremely important since they are needed on a Starship to get into orbit. Three of these engines will be attached around the outside with three sea-level Raptors in the middle. The first few Starship sections with mounting points have been seen around the manufacturing area.

These engines sport a much larger engine bell and are intended to operate more efficiently in the upper atmosphere and space. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared the specific impulse (ISP) for the current vacuum Raptors is at 378 seconds. Specific impulse is similar to a car’s miles per gallon, basically the higher the number the more efficient it is. The Raptor engine as a whole is still in development but both the sea-level and vacuum variants are nearing their operational milestones.

First orbital Starship launch still expected for July

At the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said the company is still “shooting for July” for the first Starship orbital flight. The company’s CEO, Elon Musk, is known for pushing time estimates to the extreme, but Shotwell usually seems to be tamer with the expectations. The statement that July is on the table from her means we must be close to it.

“We are headed for our first orbital attempt in the not-too-distant future. We’re shooting for July,” she said. “I am hoping we make it, but we all know this is difficult. We are really on the cusp of flying that system, or at least attempting the first orbital flight of that system, in the very near term.”

Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX

With July right around the corner, activity is still extremely high around the orbital pad construction site. Six segments have been stacked for the launch tower and the orbital mount has taken shape. The pad is also now surrounded by different support equipment necessary for launch.

Will SpaceX meet this goal of July? Well, the construction of the first orbital Superheavy booster, Booster 3, is still in the early stages. Only very limited booster testing has taken place. There is also no word from the FAA on approval for such a test flight. That being said, SpaceX can do a lot in a month, and betting against them has historically been a bad idea.

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