Late on Thursday night, at a launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX performed the first flight test of its next-generation Starship rocket, which may one day carry humans to Mars. This time around, the prototype vehicle, dubbed Starhopper, was supposed to stay close to home: The plan was for it to fire up its Raptor engine, rise to an altitude of about 60 feet, move sideways a few yards, and land.
When launch time came, smoke obscured any view of the rocket. But when the smoke cleared, Starhopper was back on the ground, not far from where it had started. Elon Musk confirmed the successful hop on Twitter, writing, “Water towers *can* fly.” (As it happens, a water tower would have come in handy: When the rocket landed, it promptly started a fire near the launchpad.)
“This particular hop is one in a series of tests designed to push the limits of the vehicle as quickly as possible to learn all we can, as fast as we safely can,” a SpaceX spokesperson said. It’s the first step toward test flights in the upper atmosphere, which Elon Musk said would “hopefully” occur in the next few months.
Starship looks as though it was plucked straight from the pages of a pulp science fiction novel. Bullet-shaped and clad in stainless steel, it will ultimately be nearly 200 feet tall. The water-tower-like Starhopper, however, is much shorter: In January, strong winds toppled the rocket’s nose cone, so SpaceX decided to do the first hop without it. The nose cone won’t be necessary until later anyway, when it will encase the rocket’s payload and handle the crushing aerodynamic forces of higher-altitude tests.
Thursday’s flight was originally scheduled to take place early last week, but a fireball on the launchpad during testing forced SpaceX to delay it. Although video of the fireball seemed to show Starhopper being consumed by flame, the prototype emerged mostly unscathed. As Musk pointed out on Twitter, a big advantage of stainless steel—as opposed to carbon fiber, which was the original plan—is that it’s “not bothered by a little heat.” Still, the company took time to make sure everything was functioning normally in the lead-up to its second attempt.
On Wednesday, SpaceX once again fueled Starhopper for its first flight, but ended the test just seconds after the engines ignited. The rocket never left the ground; it was engulfed in a large cloud of smoke and flame that emanated from the top of the vehicle. Although SpaceX did not announce the cause of the mishap, there were no explosions and Starhopper wasn’t significantly damaged.
SpaceX plans to use Starship both as a cost-effective launch system for its Starlink internet satellites and as a cargo carrier for commercial customers. In the long term, Musk says, the rocket is bound for Mars. Like the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, Starship will be capable of landing itself after a trip to orbit; the main difference is that it packs a lot more power than its predecessors.
This is due to SpaceX’s new Raptor engine, which replaces the Merlin engines used on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Each Merlin engine produces a little over 200,000 pounds of thrust at sea level; the test version of the Raptor engine has achieved 380,000 pounds of thrust. In the future, Musk has said, improved versions of the Raptor engine will generate more than half a million pounds of thrust.
Thursday’s Starhopper test used just a single Raptor engine, but subsequent flights to higher altitudes will use at least three. The final version of Starship will be mounted on a Falcon Superheavy, which will use 31 Raptors—providing twice the thrust of the Saturn V, which launched the Apollo missions and remains the most powerful rocket ever flown. Musk, never one to underpromise, said he expects the company to begin producing a new Raptor engine every 3 days by the end of the summer.
The Starhopper flight comes on the heels of two tethered tests earlier this year, in which the rocket was strapped to the launchpad so it only got a few feet off the ground. Late last month, the Federal Aviation Administration granted SpaceX a permit to conduct an “unlimited number of flights” with Starship over the next year, which was the last regulatory hurdle before untethered flights could begin.
Two Starship prototypes destined for orbit are under construction in Texas and Florida. The SpaceX teams at each facility are technically in competition, but they keep each other updated and share knowledge about their building techniques. It’s effectively a way to A/B test the construction of the vehicle, a common technique in software engineering that aims to lower production times.
The rapid development of Starship bodes well for Musk’s extraterrestrial ambitions, despite a recent setback to SpaceX’s commercial crew program following an explosion in April. He’s already sold a Starship ride to the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who will fly around the moon with a group of artists as soon as 2023. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but Musk’s sights are firmly set on Mars. Soon enough, he’ll have the rocket he needs to get there.
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