SpaceX has a good thing going with the Falcon 9. It has almost perfected landings, allowing it to reuse the boosters, and NASA has certified the Falcon 9 to carry its most important cargo and even astronauts. The company is already looking toward its next launch platform, though. After blowing up a few Starship prototypes, the latest SN5 test vehicle just completed a full-duration static fire. CEO Elon Musk says that sets the stage for a “hop” in the near future.
The Starship, previously known as the BFR, is SpaceX’s upcoming all-purpose rocket. With the Super Heavy launch platform, Starship will be a heavy-lift system capable of sending large payloads into the outer solar system. Musk has also floated the Starship to colonize Mars in the next few years. Of course, Musk does tend to over-promise — he thought the Starship would be flying by spring. Instead, SpaceX is just now starting to plan the vessel’s maiden flight.
Last year, we watched as SpaceX flew the first rocket with a Raptor engine, the so-called “Starhopper.” It was essentially a stub of the eventual Starship capable of lifting off with a single engine, hovering 150 meters in the air, and then landing. The goal is to make the Starship fully reusable like the Falcon 9. Musk has claimed that a Starship launch might cost as little as $2 million once it’s in full production, which is significantly less than other rockets. The ESA’s Ariane 5 costs $165 million per launch, and the Atlas V is $110 million.
The SN5 prototype is the latest version of the rocket, but it’s not a final configuration — you can think of it as the mid-point between the Starhopper and a real Starship. Assuming tragedy does not befall this rocket, it could complete the proposed 150-meter flight in the next week or two. Even if something does go wrong and the SN5 is lost, SpaceX has two more prototypes in production — the SN6 and SN8. The SN7 was a small-scale test tank that the company discarded after it sprung a leak during testing in June 2020.
Starship SN5 just completed full duration static fire. 150m hop soon.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2020
SpaceX also hopes the SN5 will be the first version of the Starship to complete a high-altitude test flight to around 12 miles (20 kilometers). The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will continue handling all of SpaceX’s launch operations for the time being, but Starship development is progressing at a surprising pace.
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