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SpaceX's new test rocket hovers briefly during the first free flight



Late Thursday, July 25, SpaceX launched a trial of its next big Texas rocket, where the vehicle hovered in the air for a few seconds before landing on the ground again. The hardware was not very high, but it was the first time that the test vehicle flew detached from the ground, powered by SpaceX's next generation rocket engine.

The vehicle is a test prototype of SpaceX's future spacecraft rocket. Starship is the company's most ambitious vehicle concept so far: it's a fully reusable design designed to transport cargo and people to space targets like the Moon and Mars. Similar to the SpaceX Missile Falcon 9 Starship should land upright on the earth or on distant worlds and then take off again.

Starship There is still a long way to go before it reaches space, let alone another planet. First, SpaceX wants to validate the vehicle's basic design and the newly developed main engine, the Raptor. That's what this test was about. With a single Raptor engine mounted on its base, the Starship test vehicle briefly flew over SpaceX's plant in Boca Chica, Texas, moved sideways and then landed. This type of test is often referred to as "hopping," which is why this test vehicle was called "Star Hopper." The entire test took about 1

5 seconds, but showed the basic take-off and landing skills that Starship needed in the future.

SpaceX attempted the flight for the first time on Wednesday, July 24, but had to stop immediately after the engine was ignited. SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, said Starhopper would fly up to 20 meters during this flight, although he did not confirm that he had reached that altitude after the test. Live feeds of the test showed that the Starhopper was covered in clouds, making it difficult to see how high it was flying. The Raptor ignition also caused a large fire near the launch site after the test, which burned for up to an hour thereafter. Musk, however, confirmed that the test was successful . The company will try another hop test in a week or two – one that will fly more than 200 meters high.

SpaceX has already detonated some Raptor engines under Starhopper times before, although the missile remained attached to the ground for these tests, it rose only a few inches. Today, Starhopper was the first free flight, and it only took a week before the vehicle suffered a minor failure. Last week, the company detonated the engine under the vehicle for this hop test and the hardware ignited briefly due to a fuel leak. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, however, the rocket was only minimally damaged. "[B] ig advantage of being made of high-strength stainless steel: not a little disturbed by a little heat!" he wrote on Twitter .


A shot of Starhoppers firing, from a livestream of LabPadre / YouTube
Image: LabPadre

SpaceX plans to fly the same vehicle on additional hop testing over the coming months, but the company is already working to make things bigger. SpaceX is currently building two Starship prototypes that fly much higher than Starhopper – one in Boca Chica and one in Cape Canaveral, Florida. These vehicles will be equipped with three Raptor engines, says Musk. He claimed that one of the prototypes "hopefully" would reach a height of 20 kilometers in the next few months . Musk has also suggested that later this month he will give a more detailed account of the Starship design as the Starship vehicles begin to fly. The CEO has delivered two vehicle presentations – one in 2016 and one in 2017 – but Starship's design has evolved in the months since then.

Musk recently claimed that the Starship / Super Heavy system could make its first moonless landing within the next two years, followed by a four-year landing with a crew. It's an incredibly ambitious schedule, especially as there is still much to do. The final Starship design features six Raptor engines – three for optimum sea level performance and three for optimal space performance. And the entire spaceship is supposed to launch on a bigger rocket booster called Super Heavy, which has not been developed yet. Musk is also quite notorious for making unrealistic estimates for big projects.

After today's test, SpaceX can boast that its precursor to Starship has finally flown. Now it just has to fly on and on.


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