SpaceX on Tuesday completed a flight of less than a minute of the most significant prototype ever tested of the future rocket Starship, which the company hopes to use one day to colonize Mars.” Mars is looking real,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted in response to a fan.
Musk later tweeted that in its next phase, the SN5’s landing legs will be ’60 % longer’ and ‘will be much wide and taller … but capable of landing on unimproved surfaces & auto-levelling.’
Starship prototype: not the most elegant of models
The current Starship prototype is somewhat crude: it’s a large metallic cylinder, built in a few weeks by SpaceX teams on the Texas coast, in Boca Chica — but it’s still smaller than the actual rocket will be.
Integrated system testing of a proof of concept for Starship began in March 2019, with the addition of a single Raptor rocket engine to a reduced-height prototype, nicknamed Starhopper—similar to Grasshopper, an equivalent prototype of the Falcon 9 reusable booster.
Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed pic.twitter.com/adsQIKfT0F
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 4, 2020
Starhopper was used from April through August 2019 for static testing and low-altitude, low-velocity flight testing of vertical launches and landings in July and August. More prototype Starships are under construction and are expected to go through several iterations. All test articles have a 9-meter diameter (30 ft) stainless steel hull.
Several previous prototypes exploded during ground tests, during a learning process of trial and error.
Starship prototype likely to become primary orbital vehicle
Starship is intended to become the primary SpaceX orbital vehicle, SpaceX has announced it intends to replace its existing Falcon 9 launch vehicle eventually. SpaceX Dragon 2 fleet with Starship, which is expected to take cargo to orbit at a far lower cost than any other existing launch vehicle, whether from SpaceX or other launch service provider.
In November 2019 Elon Musk estimated that fuel would cost $900,000 per launch and total launch costs could drop as low as $2 million.
The 500 feet it travelled is the furthest one of these prototypes has come in the testing process so far. Several previous prototypes exploded during ground tests, in a learning process of trial and error.
Each failure has taught SpaceX valuable lessons to inform the design and material changes, Musk said, adding that such changes are already being worked into SN6, SN7, and SN8 prototypes, which are currently in various stages of assembly within the Boca Chica site.
For a moment after the engine first ignited, it looked as if the prototype was struggling to get airborne, but then it suddenly rose above its smoke, hovered and came in for a soft landing.
Starship takes flight pic.twitter.com/IWvwcA05hl
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 5, 2020
‘And when the smoke cleared, she stood there majestically, after the 150-meter flight!’ tweeted NASA’s top scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen.
The SN5 travelled a minute fraction of the more than 35 million miles Musk hopes the final Starship will traverse to take humans to Mars.
Several upgrades yet to be made
The current prototype, resembling a giant metal thermos, doesn’t have all the features of a traditional rocket as it has no nose cone, flaps or other structural elements designed to guide it through the upper atmosphere.
The Starship envisioned by Musk will be 120 meters tall and will be able to land vertically on Mars, the CEO had pledged.
In images shared Tuesday by several space specialists, including the space news website NASASpaceFlight.com, the latest prototype — dubbed SN5 — reached an undetermined altitude before descending to land in a cloud of dust, demonstrating good trajectory control.
“And when the smoke cleared, she stood there majestically, after the 150-meter flight!” tweeted NASA’s top scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen.
The so-called “hop test” was planned to reach a 150-meter (492-foot) altitude, but SpaceX has not confirmed any details about the test flight.
LIVE NOW: Our #LaunchAmerica astronauts are welcomed home after today's historic splashdown aboard the @SpaceX Dragon Endeavour. @AstroBehnken & @Astro_Doug arrive at Ellington Field in Houston: https://t.co/yRYzeSs3r5 https://t.co/yRYzeSs3r5
— NASA (@NASA) August 2, 2020
In 2019, an earlier prototype — the smaller Starhopper — flew to 150 meters in altitude and returned to land.
The Starship envisioned by Musk will be 120 meters tall and will be able to land vertically on Mars.
“We are going to the Moon, we are going to have a base on the Moon, we are going to send people to Mars and make life multi-planetary,” Musk said Sunday, after welcoming two NASA astronauts back from the International Space Station.
The astronauts had travelled in the Dragon capsule developed by SpaceX.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk