After a brief delay, SpaceX’s Starship has gone on its first flight. It was a short hover test, and the version of the spacecraft that took to the sky was a far cry from the one CEO Elon Musk wants to send to Mars. Still, the “Starhopper” prototype has proven that the rocket has what it takes to leave Earth behind.
SpaceX has spent months putting the final touches on Starhopper at the company’s Boca Chica Beach, Texas facility. The eventual Starship rocket that travels to other planets will have six Raptor engines in the planned configuration, although Musk has suggested that could change. The Starhopper has just one Raptor, and the body has a blunted “water tower” shape instead of the sci-fi rocket design from the renders. Musk jokes in his announcement tweet that water towers can fly.
The Starhopper hovered about 65 feet in the air (almost 20 meters) before setting down. Propulsive landings will be part of the Starship from the very start, a feature SpaceX perfected on the Falcon 9 after it entered service. This capability has made the company increasingly dominant in the private spaceflight industry by lowering costs and shortening launch timetables.
The next step, according to Musk, is to complete another untethered Starhopper flight. In the next several weeks, SpaceX will attempt to reach ten times the altitude of last night’s test. The company could attempt a sub-orbital flight into space by the end of the year. However, SpaceX doesn’t have all the pieces it needs for full Starship operation.
The Starship can’t reach space from Earth’s surface even with all six of its Raptor engines. SpaceX still has to build the Super Heavy launch platform. This gargantuan first-stage rocket will have 35 Raptor engines with enough power to get the spacecraft free of Earth’s gravity. On other planets like Mars, Starship will have enough power to launch itself without the Super Heavy.
Musk has promised that the Starship (formerly known as BFR) will take over from SpaceX’s established Falcon 9 and the newer Falcon Heavy platforms in the future. It’s also designed to carry up to 100 colonists on a journey to Mars. Musk thinks that trip will only cost a few hundred thousand dollars, but many scientists caution we don’t know enough about the health effects of living on Mars.
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