SpaceX’s dramatic test-fire for its “Starhopper” spacecraft on Wednesday was a first for the Martian prototype, with the roar of its Raptor engine a promising sign for the future. The Starhopper is a precursor to Elon Musk’s vision of a Starship vehicle that will one day travel to space with people onboard.
The prototype vehicle did not go far, just a wee lift off the pad before landing again. However, that small hop for the Starhopper will likely lead to bigger ones in the future, with eyes eventually on the Moon and Mars.
"Starhopper completed tethered hop. All systems green," Musk tweeted.
The prototype itself is a testing ground for technology that will be used in subsequent versions of the rocket ship, with the pan-ultimate vehicle called a Starship. The vision is a spacecraft capable of carrying 100 people via a powerful reusable booster called the Super Heavy, which will land back on Earth after takeoff. This flight could occur as early as 2020, according to some reports, though many have called the date “unrealistic”.
The suborbital test lasted less than a minute, with the Starhopper tethered to the ground for the entire duration. Two more Raptor engines will be added to the prototype this month, each running on liquid methane and liquid oxygen.
"First (really short) hops with one engine," Musk wrote on Twitter on March 17, 2019. "Suborbital flights with three."
The Starhopper as it stands now is 18 meters (60 feet) tall and made of stainless steel. It was previously designed to be double this in size but a nosecone blew over from 50-mile-per-hour winds and suffered damage earlier this year.
“We decided to skip building a new nosecone for Hopper. Don’t need it,” Musk tweeted.
Just recently, SpaceX tested a new heat shield to protect the rocket during its reentry of Earth's atmosphere.
Residents of the local Boca Chica village in Texas were notified of the test and warned there could be a loud noise and road closures. Although more details about the Starhopper are scarce, the Starship will be much larger. The final version will reportedly fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder of the online clothing retailer Zozo Inc, around the Moon with a group of artists.