SpaceX Finally Installs “Robot Chopsticks” designed to catch Starship rockets

A few weeks ago, SpaceX began the process of placing the integrated structure atop Starbase’s 450 ft (135 m) tall Starship ‘launch tower’, which had been undergoing construction of Mechazilla’s two rocket-catching arms and carriage-like backbone over the previous several weeks.

As soon as the project is completed, SpaceX will have built a first of its kind launch tower that will be able to stack and handle Starships and Super Heavy boosters in much more adverse circumstances than cranes can withstand, and it will be able to capture both rocket stages in mid-flight.

The massive steel arms, which are internally referred to as ‘chopsticks,’ will be joined by a third ‘quick disconnect’ (QD) arm that will be responsible for stabilizing Super Heavy during Starship installation as well as feeding the reusable upper stage power, communications links, and approximately 1200 tons (2.65 million pounds) of propellant.

Together, they will allow SpaceX to undertake the first orbital test flights of Starship and, possibly one day, assist the next-generation rocket in launching in almost any weather and achieving unprecedentedly fast reusability. But first and foremost, SpaceX must complete the installation and rigging of the enormous structure.

Beginning on August 29th after less than three months of assembly, SpaceX installed Starship’s QD arm on the launch tower.

About a month later, the QD arm was mostly finished off with the installation of a claw-like grabber meant to stabilize Super Heavy and is now only missing its namesake quick-disconnect (an actuating device that will connect Starship to the pad and rapidly disconnect at liftoff).

Assembly of the last three major components of Mechazilla – a carriage-like structure and two giant arms – began in July and, much like the tower’s QD arm, wrapped up about three months later.

On October 6th, SpaceX began combining those three main parts by flipping the carriage – a bit like a spine and ribcage with ‘skates’ that attach to rails on the launch tower’s legs – vertical and staging it on a temporary support structure.

Both ‘chopsticks’ were then flipped into the correct orientation and moved into position with separate cranes for installation on the carriage/backbone. From start to finish, that process took around 9-10 days and culminated with the installation of two giant cylindrical pins with built-in bearings on October 14th and 15th.

By the 17th, both cranes had detached from the assembled Mechazilla arms and carriage were, leaving it precisely balanced against the support structure and more or less freestanding.

Just a few days later, after a last-second attempt on October 19th was called off as night fell, SpaceX tried again on the 20th and completed the first step of installing Mechazilla’s catch arms on the launch tower without apparent issue.

Likely weighing several hundred tons, Starbase’s largest crane lifted the massive structure up and over an adjacent launch mount and then carefully inched it closer to the tower. Prior to the lift, SpaceX technicians staged 12 ‘skates’ on three of the tower’s four legs – two upper and two lower skates per leg.

Once the carriage was in the right position, workers were able to wrap its upper arms around the tower and began connecting the carriage to those skates with several more large pins.

It’s unclear how much progress was made in the hours after the lift but it appears that the carriage has been attached to maybe four or five of six upper skates. Work continued well after nightfall, meaning that it will likely only take a few days to complete all 12 connections. However, even after all skates are installed, the carriage, arms, and skates will still be hanging by crane or winch.

To truly install the structure on the tower, SpaceX will have to finish installing and rigging thousands of feet of steel cable that – via a complex system of pulleys – will connect to powered ‘drawworks’ that will support the carriage and catch arms and lift the assembly up and down the tower like an elevator car.

The catch arms and carriage will also need to be mated with a giant ‘cable carrier’ (already staged on the tower) that will connect the structure to ground and control systems.

About Alex Bruno

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