SpaceX has put the finishing touches on its Starship “Hopper,” the test version of the spaceship planned to send the first humans to Mars. CEO Elon Musk announced the milestone via Twitter Friday, clearing the way for the first “hop tests” that will prove the rocket’s viability.
The ship is a key component of Musk’s plan to turn humanity into an interplanetary species. Unlike the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy, which uses rocket propellant and liquid oxygen to fuel its Merlin engines, the Starship uses Raptor engines powered by liquid oxygen and methane, which enables astronauts to set up refueling stations on Mars or other planets. This means a future Mars mission can send the astronauts back home, or they can continue out further and set up stations along the way to set up a “planet-hopping” network.
It all starts with the “Hopper.” Built at the Boca Chica test facility in Texas, the ship has a stainless steel design that Musk has likened to “liquid silver.” Unlike previous such designs like NASA’s Atlas rockets in the 1950s, the ship maintains its shape even when depressurized. The “hopper” has the same diameter as the final version at 30 feet, but it’s shorter and lacks expected additions like windows. The rocket will complete short jumps similar to those conducted by SpaceX in 2012 and 2013, with the “Grasshopper” test vehicle paving the way for the reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
The photo looks almost identical to the previous render image, down to the small figure on the right.
There are a couple of key differences from the concept and the final. The concept image looks a lot smoother, and Musk noted that the final rocket has a pointier tip.
The final rocket stands tall at the facility, enabling onlookers to grab a peek at the new construction.
The new ship should see action relatively soon. Musk claimed this week that the new rocket will fly in just four weeks’ time, meaning SpaceX should beat its goal of holding the tests in 2019 with a staggering 11 months to spare.
If the tests are successful, SpaceX is aiming to complete high altitude, high-velocity tests next year. However, Musk indicated that the chance of a full orbital test in 2020 is at 60 percent and rising thanks to tweaks to the rocket’s design. Musk claimed the orbital Starship could arrive as early as June.
From there, SpaceX has a busy schedule planned. It’s aiming to send two Starships to Mars in 2022, sending out materials to support a future mission. The next possible flight, when the Earth and Mars are correctly aligned, would take place in 2024. This would consist of four rockets, two of which would carry the first humans to Mars. SpaceX is also planning to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a trip around the moon in 2023, accompanied by six to eight artists as part of a wider project.
It all starts with the shiny rocket built in Texas.
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