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Elon Musk announced that SpaceX could start their initial tests on a prototype of the company’s next-generation Starship vehicle this week. Musk tweeted that flights of a "hopper" test vehicle fueled by a single Raptor engine would "hopefully" begin this week once the engine delivered to the company’s South Texas test site late last week - along with the vehicle itself - was integrated
Those living in the Boca Chica Village housing subdivision close to the test site on the Gulf of Mexico east of Brownsville, Texas, were notified on Friday by local officials that SpaceX could begin testing the week of March 18, 2019, as per copies of the notice posted on social media. The announcement also stated that a safety zone would be set up during those tests along with checkpoints on the road from Brownsville to Boca Chica Village and the SpaceX test site.
People on Twitter asked Musk if the tests would begin this week and he answered that he is hopeful although engine integration was always problematic. He also added that first hops would lift off, but just barely.
Both statements from Musk and regulatory filings from SpaceX have shown that the company intends to perform an incremental test flight program using this vehicle. It will begin with very low altitude tests and as time goes on the vehicle will go higher and faster. What’s more, the tests will employ a single Raptor engine. However, Musk later stated that suborbital flights would be made possible by three of these engines.
In December 2018, Musk unveiled development of the Starship prototype at the South Texas facility. At the time, test flights were planned to start in early 2019. In early February, SpaceX began testing the flight version of the Raptor engine at their McGregor, Texas, engine test site. At that time, Musk explained that the first Starship hopper flight would likely take place in four to eight weeks.
Initial plans for the hopper saw it having a big nose cone, similar to that on the actual flight vehicle. Unfortunately, that nose cone was knocked off in high winds at the South Texas site this past January and underwent a lot of damage. In another tweet posted by Musk, he said that the upcoming tests would not have a nose cone because it’s not required for the low-altitude flights they have planned. He also said they're working on building a future orbital Starship vehicle.
Starship is meant to be a reusable upper stage for the company’s new launch system, with a separate booster known as Super Heavy that will service the reusable first stage. Work on Starship and Super Heavy are essential to Musk’s long-term goal of making human settlements on Mars happen as early as the 2020s.
The hopper vehicle marks the first stage in the overall testing plan for Starship and Super Heavy. During a presentation at the Microsymposium 60 on commercial lunar lander systems that took place on March 17, Paul Wooster of SpaceX explained that once they complete their hopper test campaign, they’ll move on to an orbital flight with Starship: getting it up into Earth orbit and testing out systems on board as well as recovery. However, Wooster didn't estimate how long the hopper test campaign would last.
SpaceX intends to use Starship for missions to the moon. In September, SpaceX revealed that they had signed up Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, as the first customer for the new system, which at the time was known as the Big Falcon Rocket. Maezawa intends to fly a circumlunar trip around the moon on Starship as early as 2023 in addition to other artists who will come along as part of his "Dear Moon" project.
Starship is also engineered to land on the Moon by using its propellant transfer in Earth orbit. This will allow Starship to land on the lunar surface with up to 100 metric tons of cargo, according to Wooster, who said it also depends on the amount of propellant loaded onto the vehicle.
Picture credit: SpaceX