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Not content with having one successful space transport in the Crew Dragon, SpaceX is cruising ahead with another—bigger—spaceship: the Starship. And the vehicle recently passed a significant milestone: its first flight.
One of the prototypes, called SN5, completed a hop test, launching 500 feet above the ground before coming back down to land. The entire flight lasted less than a minute. While SN5 is essentially just a flying cylinder—smaller than the final Starship will be and powered by only one Raptor engine, it’s a promising step forward.
Starship SN5 completes a hop test.
The Starship will be a fully reusable transport system capable of taking people and cargo into orbit—to the Moon and all the way to Mars. The spaceship will be 160 feet tall, with a 30-foot diameter—and SpaceX claims that its payload volume of 59 feet by 30 feet is the largest of any current or in-development space launcher. The spacecraft will be powered by six Raptor engines, SpaceX’s new reusable staged-combustion engines capable of 440 pounds of force. The Raptors use sub-cooled liquid methane and liquid oxygen (“methalox”) fuel.
In its cargo configuration, the vehicle can carry over 100 tons of materials to the Moon and Mars—while the passenger version could ferry up to 100 people between planets. The crew configuration even features private cabins, spacious common areas and a viewing gallery, as well as solar storm shelters and centralized storage.
Starship was originally going to be made out of carbon fiber, but last year SpaceX announced that it was switching to stainless steel. While heavier than carbon fiber, stainless steel is much cheaper and has a higher melting point—making it better able to withstand the stresses of atmospheric re-entry.
Starship would take off and land vertically. And while the vehicle would have the power to lift off the moon and Mars on its own, on Earth it would need to be launched atop a booster: SpaceX’s massive Falcon Super Heavy, which will have capacity for up to 37 Raptors of its own. Super Heavy is also reusable—it will return to the launch site and touch down on its six legs while Starship continues on its journey.
SN6, which is similar to SN5, is expected to conduct the same test as SN5 soon—the two vehicles are expected to form a sort of testing tandem for the company. And more prototypes are coming. SN7 was a test tank made out of stainless steel alloy 304L that was blown up deliberately to see how much pressure it could handle (the other prototypes are made out of 301 stainless steel, and SpaceX is working on a proprietary alloy of its own). SN8 will be another flying prototype, featuring a nosecone, fairing dome, fins and aerodynamic control surfaces according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Equipped with those components, SN8 is anticipated to fly higher than the other vehicles—up to 12 miles— and will likely be equipped with three Raptor engines. And SN9 is in the early stages of production.
SpaceX is pursuing an aggressive testing and development schedule, aiming to conduct multiple hop tests on a daily basis—the kind of short, fast flights that would generate reams of data needed to develop longer trips.
In fact, the whole project has been on a fast track, having only been first announced in 2017. An earlier, smaller prototype, “Starhopper,” made a tethered hop test to 500 feet in September 2019, and a full-sized prototype SN4 performed a static test fire in May 2020. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing: in April, prototype SN3 imploded during a test (“rockets are hard,” tweeted Musk afterward), and SN1 and SN2 experienced failures as well. But that’s why prototypes are built and tested—to figure out what works … and what doesn’t.
The company is aiming to begin commercial flights of its Starship as early as 2021—with a trip to the moon planned for 2023 (famously to feature Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who has provided funding support to SpaceX, and a group of artists). And Starship is one of the finalists for NASA’s Artemis moon lander project.
And Musk clearly has Mars in his sights, pushing to get Starship cargo missions to the red planet by as early as 2022—and the first humans on Martian soil by 2024. In fact, SpaceX plans to build a fleet of Starships and Falcon Heavies that would ferry people to and from Mars on a regular basis.
And while Musk has a history of proclaiming overly confident time lines, when Starship is finally ready to launch, it could turn the space travel industry on its ear. With its previously unheard-of capacity for crew and passengers, Starship will be a tantalizing new option for space travel. Likely to cost close to $10 billion to develop, the Starship system represents the culmination of SpaceX’s long-term plans for spaceflight. The Falcon Super Heavy will be far more powerful than the company’s current Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which will be phased out in time. And Starship will eventually replace the Crew Dragon.
“Starship will allow us to inhabit other worlds,” Musk tweeted last year. “To make life as we know it interplanetary.”
Read more about SpaceX’s sometimes rocky quest to build the Starship at SpaceX’s Starship SN3 Crumbles During Testing.