SpaceX’s Starhopper craft leapt without a leash for the first ever last night in an explosive step forward for the company and its mission to reach Mars.
At about 11:45 pm Eastern time, Starhopper ignited its Raptor engines from its home base in Boca Chica Texas, lighting up the night sky and engulfing the chrome space craft in a shroud of thick smoke.
For the first time since Starhopper’s inception, the craft — a squat and strikingly large ship — briefly hovered 20 meters off the ground without a tether.
In a tweet, SpaceX and Tesla CEO, Elon Musk joked — referencing Starhopper’s unique appearance — that, ‘Water towers *can* fly.’
The test, which Musk called a success, marks a quick turnaround from static fires of the rocket carried out earlier this week which saw the craft’s engine shoot fire out of a vent near its domed top.
According to Musk, the fire was caused by a ‘post-test fuel leak’ but ‘no major damage’ resulted.
SpaceX completed its first successful test firing of the 60 foot tall Raptor engine, causing it to lift briefly off of the launch pad, in April.
Starhopper’s launch coincided with yet another successful SpaceX launch of its Falcon 9 rocket which took off out of a Florida base yesterday from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The craft is on a mission to rendezvous with the International Space Station on Saturday and is carrying a 3D bioprinter that scientists will use to test printing human tissue in space.
Starhopper is the test vehicle for SpaceX’s ultimate goal of developing a sleeker craft called the Starship which Musk hopes will eventually take human passengers on a number of missions into space.
Just a few miles away from Starhopper’s launch site, SpaceX employees have been hard at work building the next prototype of the craft, the MK1, which will eventually attempt to achieve longer journeys into the air.
As reported by Ars Technica, that vehicle is currently separated into two pieces — the cone and a larger section containing the fuselage — and will begin to come together in the weeks ahead.
Musk says the MK1 could take flight within the next two to three months and aims to conduct a flight as far as 20 to 30 kilometers later this year.
A concurrent team in Florida is also in the midst of building a similar MK2 rocket with a different design and specs.
Ars Technica notes that the two teams are competing and collaborating in an effort to accelerate the future ship’s development.
As for the current Starhopper prototype, Musk said in a tweet following the test that a ‘200m hop [is scheduled]in a week or two.’
Ultimately, Musk hopes that the company’s Starship could help humans reach Mars for the first time and has set an optimistic timeline for when the experimental craft might be able to do so.
The first crewed Red Planet mission for the rocket and 100-passenger Starship could come as early as the mid-2020s if development and testing go well, Musk has said
Additional missions may even include tourists trips to the moon by 2024, according to the CEO.
Completing a successful mission to the moon would also mark an incremental step in Musk’s other vision of traveling to Mars.