The rocket engine that will one day blast SpaceX’s Starship vessel to Mars has reached unprecedented power levels. CEO Elon Musk said on Sunday that the Raptor engine has shattered a previously-held record that’s been untouched for almost 20 years.
SpaceX began full-scale tests of its Raptor a week ago and it’s already showing promise. Its eventual goal? Sending Starship 33,926,867 miles it needs to travel to reach Mars. Musk tweeted that it has already reached an all-time high level of chamber pressure, which affects how much thrust it’s able to generate compared to its size and how efficient it is with fuel.
Raptor achieved roughly 269 bar (3,900 pounds per square inch), surpassing the Russian-made RD-180 engine capable of around 258 bar (3,725 psi). That means SpaceX’s engine can reach forces equivalent to having one male hippopotamus crammed in every square inch of Raptor’s combustion chamber, the small area the precedes its cone-shaped nozzle. This is an early sign that SpaceX’s creation has the potential to surpass the RD-180, but there’s still work to be done.
The Russian engine has been put to consistent use, flying on the Untied Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket since 2000, proving time and again that it can replicate its history-making chamber pressure in the field. Raptor only started full-scale testing on February 4, so it has to be mounted on a launch vessel before it dethrones RD-180.
In the longer run, its higher chamber pressure means that Raptor should be able to do more with less real-estate. Though it’s physically only marginally larger than SpaceX’s Merlin engines — which power Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy — it should some day be capable of more than triple the thrust. If these levels are maintained during the Starship’s hop tests, the Raptor engine will be posed to revolutionize space travel.
SpaceX has already constructed a “hopper” prototype of the Starship that will undergo a series of suborbital “hop tests” during the first half of 2019.
The final Starship will be comprised of two segments. The second stage will look like the hopper Musk has shown off on Twitter and will carry passengers. The first stage has been dubbed Super Heavy and will be made up of 31 Raptor engines allowing the entire vessel to lift “100 metric tons” from Earth to the surface of Mars.
The uncrewed maiden voyage of Starship is scheduled for 2022. Now that Raptor has shown itself capable of generating record-breaking force, SpaceX has inched closer towards meeting that window.
Update 02/12 5 a.m. Eastern: An earlier version of this story stated the Starship’s “hop tests” would use Falcon 9 engines. It has now been corrected.