The Starship, SpaceX's vessel designed to one day take humans to Mars, is set to fly higher than ever soon. Over the weekend, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk outlined plans for an upcoming prototype model of the ship, dubbed "SN8," to fly up to 60,000 feet (or around 20 kilometers) into the air and return to Earth.
The launch would be the highest any model of the Starship has ever flown, beating this month's "SN6" launch, last month's "SN5" launch, and August 2019's "Starhopper" launch. All these ships flew to a height of around 500 feet (or 150 meters). The flight would also send the ship soaring to nearly double the altitude of regular commercial airplanes, which cruise at a comparatively low height of around 35,000 feet.
The feat could pave the way for some of SpaceX's grandest plans. The company is currently developing the ship at its Boca Chica facility in Texas, with the goal of a fully-reusable rocket capable of transporting over 150 tons or 100 people into space at a time. The ship could take on satellite launches similar to the Falcon 9, while its liquid oxygen and methane fuel enables passengers to explore Mars and return by refueling with the planet's resources. Musk has previously outlined his goals to build a city on Mars by 2050.
On Saturday, Musk explained this next phase of the rocket's development via his Twitter page. In around one week, SpaceX expects to complete an "SN8" prototype. This new model will sport flaps and a nosecone, looking closer to the final concept images than the simple silo that flew last month.
From there, the team plans to hold a static test fire. This is a routine part of SpaceX's launches where the engines are tested before an actual launch. Then there will be checkouts, then another static fire, then the flight itself will be held.
"One way or another, excitement guaranteed!" Musk wrote. "Support of greater Boca, Padre, Brownsville community is very much appreciated."
Musk did not provide indications as to when the launch may take place. Eagle-eyed Reddit fans spotted a filing with the Federal Communications Commission published on Friday. The application covers communications that can support "medium altitude hops tests" up to a maximum altitude of 20 kilometers. This covers a six-month period starting from October 11. While this suggests SpaceX has been laying the groundwork for forthcoming tests, it's not necessarily an indicator of timings – the company filed similar applications in June and February.
Following a successful test, SpaceX may turn its attention to the Super Heavy booster. This 28-engine behemoth helps the entire construction reach a height of around 400 feet. Musk claimed earlier this month that the Super Heavy booster has started construction and could complete a launch within two months.
From there, SpaceX has big goals. The company has announced a trip around the moon with Japanese billionaire Yusak Maezawa. Musk has also outlined an ambitious timetable to send the first cargo-only ships to Mars by 2022. This would lead to crewed missions by 2024.
The Inverse analysis – The 20-kilometer hop has been a long-standing goal of Musk's. In October 2019, Musk explained that if the ship can reach the planned height, the company will then turn its attention directly toward completing an orbital mission.
The orbital flight could come as soon as 2021, but as Musk noted earlier this month, the Starship's goal of offering a fully-reusable orbital rocket is "uncharted territory." Indeed, as Musk previously suggested in September 2019 that the first orbital flight could take place in a matter of months from that date, it perhaps won't be too surprising if SpaceX's timetables shift again as it continues into uncharted territory.
But for such a major step forward in the project, the Starship's 20-kilometer launch should also provide an impressive visual display.