SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk has revealed that the company is aiming to launch the first Starship Hopper test in the coming months. The Starship is the upper stage of the company’s new super heavy lift launch vehicle that Musk hopes to use to colonise Mars.
Development of the Starship Hopper vehicle is progressing at the SpaceX Boca Chica facility in Texas. Although no official images have been released by the company, photographers have been documenting the progress of the three-finned rocket.
On January 5, Musk retweeted images from the photographer, Maria Pointer of the Starship Hopper under construction. In response to the post, a user asked when SpaceX was planning to launch the vehicle for the first time. As is characteristic from the mercurial CEO, Musk replied stating, “ Aiming for 4 weeks, which probably means 8 weeks, due to unforeseen issues.”
Aiming for 4 weeks, which probably means 8 weeks, due to unforeseen issues
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 5, 2019
The construction of a smaller vehicle to test hardware is not new to SpaceX. When developing the company’s current primary launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, the company built and launched the Grasshopper eight times. The flights ranged from a simple 1.8-meter hop to a 744-meter leap.
In addition to being the vehicle’s maiden flight, the first Starship Hopper test will be the first flight of the company’s next-generation Raptor engines. Currently, SpaceX utilise Merlin 1C engines to power the Falcon 9. Each of the nine engines fitted to the Falcon 9 first stage is capable of around 420 kN (94,000 lbf) of thrust at sea level. The new Raptor engines are significantly more powerfully offering approximately 1,993 kN (448,000 lbf) of thrust at sea level
Even if SpaceX does manage to pull off one or even multiple Starship Hopper flights in 2019, the first flight of the full-scale Starship rocket is still several years away. Currently, Musk has stated that commercial flights could start as early as 2023. However, many in the industry have questioned whether or not that will be possible.