SpaceX may 'hop' a full-size Starship rocket prototype hundreds of feet into the air as soon as Sunday

  • SpaceX is developing a fully reusable rocket system called Starship-Super Heavy in Boca Chica, Texas.
  • Before the vehicle can fly to orbit, though, the aerospace company needs to prove the system's core design works.
  • To that end, founder Elon Musk tweeted on Thursday that SpaceX's latest Starship prototype, called SN5, completed a test-firing and could soon perform an experimental "hop" hundreds of feet into the air.
  • Musk did not provide specifics on the test launch's timing, but a Federal Aviation Administration notice suggests SpaceX could attempt the flight as soon as Sunday.  
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Anyone who said grain silos can't fly may be in for a surprise on Sunday.

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, is fervently working to develop a potentially revolutionary rocket system called Starship in Boca Chica, a relatively remote region in southeastern Texas that sits on the Gulf of Mexico. If Starship and its Super Heavy rocket booster end up being fully reusable, Musk has said, the system may reduce the cost of launching anything to space by about 1,000-fold.

But first, SpaceX has to see if its core designs for Starship works. To that end, the company is moving briskly to build, test, and launch prototypes. According to a tweet from Musk, the first such full-scale example may soon fly from a beachside launch site to nearly 500 feet (150 meters) in the air.

To tee up that imminent test flight, SpaceX on Thursday test-fired its latest Starship prototype, called SN5 (short for "serial number 5") — and apparently with success. "Starship SN5 just completed full duration static fire," Musk said on Twitter.

Musk added that the vehicle would "hop soon," and though he did not immediately clarify when that meant, a notice to airmen, or NOTAM, posted on Thursday suggests SN5 could fly between 9 a.m. ET and 11 p.m. ET on Sunday. (For safety reasons, SpaceX is required to file such notices with the FAA before launching rockets.)

SpaceX had hoped to attempt a flight last week, but Hurricane Hanna not only prevented SN5's testing, but also apparently damaged a component that had to be fixed, Musk said.

SN5 is the latest of several full-scale Starship prototypes that SpaceX has built in Texas. The previous versions have either crumpled during tests or, as was the case on May 29, catastrophically exploded.

Each failure has taught SpaceX valuable lessons to inform design and material changes — tweaks that Musk says are already being worked into SN6, SN7, and SN8 prototypes, which are in various stages of assembly within the company's expanding and bustling work yards in South Texas.

The steel vehicles don't have wing-like canards or nosecones attached in case something goes wrong in their earliest phases of testing, so they look more like flying fuel tanks or grain silos than rocket ships.

However, as last year's test launch of an early Starship prototype called Starhopper showed, the flights of such crude experimental vehicles (shown above) can easily impress: On August 27, Starhopper soared about 492 feet (150 meters) into the air, translated across a launch site, and landed on a nearby concrete pad.

SpaceX has an FAA launch license to send Starship prototypes on a "suborbital trajectory," meaning the experimental rocket ships could reach dozens of miles above Earth before returning and landing. However, it's uncertain if SpaceX plans to launch SN5 on such an ambitious flight path if it survives the pending 150-meter "hop" flight.

The company couldn't attempt more ambitious flights until late August at the soonest, though.

On July 23, SpaceX asked the FCC for permission to use communicate with prototypes flying as high as 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) within the next seven months. The earliest date noted on the request, which is still pending, is August 18.

Nevertheless, SpaceX is pursuing a launch license for full-scale, orbital-class Starship-Super Heavy vehicles, part of which includes a new environmental review of its Boca Chica site.

Musk hopes Starship will launch a cargo mission to Mars in 2022, send a private crew around the moon in 2023, return NASA astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024, and even begin sending people to Mars the same year.

Have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at [email protected] or a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. More secure communication options are listed here.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on July 21, 2020.

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