SpaceX’s Starship Prototype Nails Another Hop Test! Bring on Orbital Flights!

SpaceX has done it again! Earlier today (Thurs. Sept. 3rd), the company completed a second hop test with a Starship prototype. This time, it was the sixth iteration (SN6) that successfully made the 150-meter (~500 foot) flight at their launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas. This latest test has further validated the Starship design and the Raptor engine, two systems which Musk hopes will someday take humans to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond!

This test comes less than a month after SpaceX made a similar hop with their SN5 prototype (which took place on August 4th). On that occasion, the Starship managed to reach 150 m and then land on an adjacent pad without incident, though it didn’t quite stick the landing and damaged one of its legs in the process. Together, these tests have put SpaceX in good standing to begin conducting high-altitude (and eventually, orbital) test flights.

Originally, the company was hoping to make this second attempt during an otherwise jam-packed Sunday. Aside from SN6 blasting off from Boca Chica, SpaceX was also scheduled to conduct two launches from Cape Canaveral – another batch of Starlink satellites (V1 L11) and Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B Earth observation satellite. In anticipation of the launch, Cameron County issued a road closure notice for up to three days.

This notice specified Sunday (Aug. 30th) as the primary date – from 08:00 am to 08:00 pm local time (07:00 am – 07:00 pm EDT; 06:00 am – 06:00 pm PDT) – with backup opportunities for Monday and Tuesday from 08:00 am to 08:00 pm. Unfortunately, the flight test was pushed back to Thursday, most likely due to prevailing winds around the launch site, at around 12:45 pm local time (10:45 am PDT; 01:45 pm EDT).

These two hop tests are the latest in a string of successes for SpaceX, which is a welcome change of pace given their previous string of failures. After completing tests with the miniature prototype, the Starship Hopper, the company lost four full-scale prototypes in a row – Mk1, SN1, and SN3, and SN4. The first three prototypes blew up during cryogenic loa testings, whereas the SN4 passed this test, but exploded during a static fire test.

But of course, these losses were anticipated because of SpaceX’s rapid-prototyping and “test to failure” process. By building one iteration of the Starship after another, then pushing it to its limits, SpaceX has been able to accumulate massive volumes of data that have helped them improve the overall design. With the lessons that they have learned, the company is now on the verge of several major milestones.

This includes the assembly of the SN7 and SN8 prototypes, which (according to a previous statement made by Musk) are likely to be making their own 150-meter hop tests in the near future. Once that is finished, SpaceX will be attempting a high-altitude hop test, which will involve a prototype equipped with three Raptor engines and body flaps attempting to hop 20 km (12.4 mi).

During a phone interview on Tuesday, as part of the 2020 Virtual Humans to Mars Summit, Musk shared that his company would begin constructing the first stage booster (the Super Heavy) this week. He also said that the design might be updated once again to feature fewer engines – 28 instead of 31 this time. “That’s still a lot of engines,” he said. “We’ll be cranking up the thrust on those engines.”

As for when the high-altitude flight could take place, he indicated that it could happen “probably next year.” He also cautioned that there will still be a steep learning curve:

“The first ones might not work. This is uncharted territory. Nobody’s ever made a fully reusable orbital rocket … and then having something twice the size of a Saturn V (the rocket that astronauts to the moon) that’s also fully reusable… that’s really something else, that’s profound. That’s the gateway to the galaxy or at least the solar system.” 

Further Reading: CNET, 2020 HMS