SpaceX Just Test-Fired A New Rocket Engine That Will Launch Missions To Mars

Raptor engine test. Elon Musk/Twitter

Just when you thought it was safe to stop thinking about Elon Musk for a day or two, the billionaire-slash-savior of the human race has unveiled a new rocket engine that may one day take people to Mars.

In a tweet overnight, Musk said SpaceX has successfully test-fired this engine, called Raptor, yesterday at their test site in McGregor, Texas. He posted a couple of images too, one labeled “mach diamonds” (also called shock diamonds), which refers to the pattern in the supersonic exhaust plume of a rocket engine.

This test was a scaled-down version of the final Raptor design, but it is the first test (that we know of anyway), so it’s a pretty big deal.

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Currently on its Falcon 9 rockets, SpaceX uses an engine called Merlin. Developed by SpaceX’s rocket engineer Tom Mueller, this engine has been used on all launches from the inaugural Falcon 1 to the Falcon 9 today, helping SpaceX launch commercial satellites and missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX, though, ultimately wants to send cargo and humans to Mars, and to do that it needs a bigger and better engine.

Step forward Raptor. Although we don’t know specific details about the engine yet, Musk did give away a few tidbits, hinting that the engine was three times as powerful as Merlin. He also suggested the size of the rocket’s nozzle would be about 4.3 meters (14 feet) wide, making it bigger than the Saturn V’s F-1 engines used to take humans to the Moon, with about half the thrust.

And unlike Merlin, which uses kerosene and liquid oxygen, Raptor will be powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen – leading some to suggest it could be refueled by methane on Mars.

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When this engine might be used instead of Merlin, and for what launches, is unclear at the moment.

But the timing is notable, because tomorrow Elon Musk is going to be unveiling his plan to colonize the Solar System. He’s expected to reveal details of his Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) 2016 in Mexico. This will be streamed live online starting at 2.30pm EDT (7.30pm BST).

On Twitter, Musk said he would also reveal more details about the Raptor engine in his talk – another reason to be excited. Don't miss it.

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