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SpaceX just fired up the engine on its test Starship vehicle for the first time

SpaceX just fired up the engine on its test Starship vehicle for the first time


Though it didn’t last very long

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An artistic rendering of SpaceX’s planned Starship vehicle
An artistic rendering of SpaceX’s planned Starship vehicle
Image: SpaceX

A test version of SpaceX’s next-generation spacecraft, the Starship, successfully ignited its onboard engine for the first time today — though the vehicle didn’t go very far. The ignition was a test known as a static fire, meant to try out the engine while the vehicle remained tethered to the Earth. However, today’s test marked the first time this vehicle lit up its engine, and it could pave the way for short “hop” flights in the near future.

This particular vehicle, referred to as “Starhopper,” is meant to test out the technologies and basic design of the final Starship vehicle — a giant passenger spacecraft that SpaceX is making to take people to the Moon and Mars. The stainless steel Starship is supposed to launch into deep space on top of a massive booster called the Super Heavy, which will be capable of landing back on Earth after takeoff just like SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 rocket fleet. And when complete, the Starship/Super Heavy combo should be capable of putting up to 220,000 pounds (100,000 kilograms) into low Earth orbit, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, making it one of the most powerful rockets ever made.

SpaceX is currently building the first Starship spacecraft at the company’s launch site and test facility in Texas, Musk said on Twitter. But before that vehicle sees space, SpaceX first plans to conduct a few hover flights with the Starhopper. These tests involve igniting the engine (or engines) attached to the bottom of the vehicle. Though these flights won’t take the ship to space, they will test out SpaceX’s new powerful Raptor engine — a critical piece of hardware that will be used to power the future Starship and Super Heavy booster.

SpaceX fired up a full-scale version of the Raptor engine for the first time in February. And for the last four months, SpaceX has been building the Starhopper at its Boca Chica facility, an area that the company plans to turn into a commercial launch site. Workers transported the vehicle to a test launchpad at the beginning of March and then recently attached a Raptor engine to its bottom.

“First hops will lift off, but only barely.”

Residents of Boca Chica received fliers a couple weekends ago notifying them of an imminent test and warning them that there could be some road closures. However, it’s been a bit of a waiting game, as SpaceX has been patient with the test. The company has been routinely filling up the Starhopper with propellant over the last few weeks to test out how fueling procedures might go, but SpaceX ultimately waited until this evening to finally ignite the engine. Based on livestream footage of the test, it looks as though the ignition only lasted a few seconds.

Currently, the Starhopper has just one Raptor engine attached to its bottom, which won’t take the vehicle very high, according to Musk. “First hops will lift off, but only barely,” he tweeted. It’s possible today’s ignition carried the Starhopper a few inches off the ground, though tethers likely prevented it from getting very high.

Eventually the plan is to put three engines on the vehicle in order to do much higher “hops.” Such flights would take the vehicle to low altitudes in the atmosphere before slowly lowering the ship back to the ground. Similar tests were conducted on a test version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, called Grasshopper, in 2012 and 2013, to try out the landing technique that the company employs after most of its launches. Ultimately Starhopper is meant to do the same, testing out the ship’s power and its capability to land on other worlds, such as the Moon or Mars.

Eventually the plan is to put three engines on the vehicle

Starhopper has the same cylindrical shape as Starship, as well as the same three landing legs the final spacecraft will have. However, it’s slightly shorter than Starship, which will have seven engines instead of three. Starhopper is also missing one important part: its upper half. SpaceX built an upper portion of the test vehicle at the end of last year, but in January, strong winds in Texas caused that part of the Starhopper to fall over and crumple. At the time, Musk said it would take a few weeks to repair. Ultimately, SpaceX decided to forego building a new upper half for these hop tests, with Musk claiming the company doesn’t need it.

It’s unclear how many hop tests SpaceX plans to do. Musk has claimed that the first orbital flight of the Starship could occur as early 2020, though the CEO has a history of making optimistic deadlines that are rarely met on time.

In the meantime, SpaceX will be building both the Starship and Super Heavy in both Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral, Florida, the location where the company launches most of its rockets. Musk also said that SpaceX is working to get regulatory approval to fly from both of those locations.