SpaceX’s Starhopper takes its first rocket hop, marking another step toward Mars

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Alan Boyle
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After weeks of preparation, the prototype test vehicle for SpaceX’s monster spaceship, known as Starhopper, fired up its methane-powered Raptor rocket engine for the first time today and lifted ever so slightly off its Texas launch pad.

“Starhopper completed tethered hop,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. “All systems green.”

The round-topped rocket is meant to serve as a testbed for SpaceX’s interplanetary-class Starship, just as earlier testbeds known as the Grasshopper and the F9R Dev blazed a trail for SpaceX’s self-landing Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

Starhopper was built at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch facility, near Brownsville, Texas, and the company’s fans have been watching avidly from afar as ground crews installed the first Raptor engine and tested out the propulsion system’s plumbing. Not just one, but two webcams have been tracking the activity day by day.

The payoff came at around 7:56 p.m. CT (5:56 p.m. PT), when bright orange flames spouted amid the fog.

“This is the first ever firing of a rocket engine at the launch site,” Next Spaceflight’s Michael Baylor tweeted.

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The Starhopper that’s currently being tested is designed for suborbital test hops, to test launches and landings with the Raptor engine. An orbital-class test vehicle could be ready for testing around June. “Orbital version is taller, has thicker skins (won’t wrinkle) and a smoothly curving nose section,” Musk said in January.

SpaceX will apply the insights gained during the test program to the design and construction of the honest-to-goodness Starship and its Super Heavy booster. In its currently planned configuration, the Super Heavy would use its 31 Raptor engines to send the refuelable Starship on transcontinental point-to-point trips between earthly spaceports, on orbital missions to deploy bunches of satellites, and on journeys beyond Earth orbit..

The aim is to have the Starship and Super Heavy ready for passengers by the mid-2020s, in order to carry Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and an entourage of artists around the moon … and set the stage for Mars trips.

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