2019 Tech Predictions: SpaceX's Mars-Bound BFR Starship Starts Hop Tests

Elon Musk's ship is about to take flight.

SpaceX is gearing up for its biggest challenge yet. The company is preparing to conduct “hop tests” of the BFR — recently renamed the “Starship” — a giant rocket destined for a manned mission to Mars. Inverse predicts that while it almost seems unbelievable that such a big project could take off so soon, the company will make its gargantuan rocket fly a few kilometers next year.

It’s a big moment for the firm. CEO Elon Musk first outlined the ship at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia back in September 2017. The rocket’s Raptor engines would use liquid oxygen and methane, instead of the RP-1 fuel and liquid oxygen used by the Falcon series’ Merlin engines. That means astronauts can harvest resources from the Mars atmosphere, refueling the engine to return home.

We’re reporting on 19 predictions for 2019. This is #12.

The rocket is set to pack serious power, beating even the world’s most powerful operational rocket, the Falcon Heavy. That rocket, which sent Musk’s red Tesla Roadster into space on its February test flight, could send 54.4 tons to low Earth orbit. The Starship, though, offers a payload capacity of 150 tons.

Starship is scheduled to perform “hop tests” of a few hundred kilometers at the company’s test site in Boca Chica, Texas, as early as next year.

Starships Were Meant to Fly

The big question is whether the company will make this goal, or if it may slip. The company sent an application to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to run the tests.

William Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst for Forecast International, tells Inverse that the application “doesn’t tell us much about when the tests will actually happen,” but SpaceX applied for similar tests with its Grasshopper vehicle back in September 2011. The vehicle, aimed at reusability of the Falcon 9 rocket, completed its first hop test 12 months later.

“It’s still difficult to determine how long until tests actually take place, but from a historical perspective, it could be a year or more from the November application date,” Ostrove says. “That means tests are still possible in late 2019.”

A successful hop test would pave the way for more ambitious missions, like the planned voyage sending Japanese billionaire Yukazu Maezawa around the moon with a team of artists in the year 2023. Musk previously suggested that the grand prize, a manned Mars mission, could happen as early as 2024. This all depends on successful tests.

“As far as the meaning of any test, it’s difficult to assess significance. SpaceX continues to change the design of the Starship,” Ostrove says. “It’s not clear if they are done fine-tuning the design; however, it’s likely that at least small changes will continue to be made to the design. In fact, flight tests will likely reveal more areas where changes are needed. That being said, any time a company can conduct an actual liftoff of a rocket, even if it’s a failure, it is a step toward completion. Those tests are invaluable for gathering real-world performance data and fine-tuning engineering models.”

Failure to Launch

Of course, SpaceX has missed its deadlines before. The company previously planned to send a Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018, but president Gwynne Shotwell eventually pushed that back to 2020. At the BFR’s announcement, Musk said the company would send a cargo mission to Mars in 2022.

Its plans to send Maezawa around the moon also slipped back, initially announced as an anonymous buyer for a 2018 launch. Musk confirmed at the September announcement that Maezawa was the person that planned to go around the moon in a Dragon capsule.

19 Predictions for 2019: What Inverse Thinks

The Starship is a key aspect of SpaceX’s plans, with a focus on reusability at its core. While there’s a number of factors to suggest it could miss that deadline, Inverse predicts that the ship will complete a hop test next year.

Related video: SpaceX Simulates How Its Starship Will Land

Media via SpaceX/Instagram