SpaceX has big plans for the Starship that include launching deep space missions and colonizing Mars. Before it can do any of that, it has to finish designing the vehicle. The final Starship will be a sci-fi masterpiece of stainless steel, but the Starhopper is its stubby precursor. This prototype rocket is still plenty sci-fi, though. In its latest and final test, the Starhopper successfully hovered hundreds of feet in the air and landed at the company’s Boca Chica test facility.
The Starhopper is the first vehicle to use SpaceX Raptor engine. The final Starship will have six Raptor engines, but Starhopper only has one. That’s still enough to lift it above the dusty Texas landscape and set it down gently. The first Starhopper tests took place in the spring of this year, but they were tethered. The rocket flew just above the ground before landing. In July, Starhopper had its first real flight, rising to an altitude of 65 feet (almost 20 meters) before landing.
Yesterday’s test marks the most impressive achievement for the Starhopper, but it’s also its last flight. The rocket lifted off just after 5PM local time, flying up to an altitude of 500 feet (150 meters) and hanging there for a few seconds. Then, it floated back down to land on a nearby launch pad. The entire operation took just 57 seconds.
This test vehicle is basically an analog of the old “Grasshopper” prototype that preceded Falcon 9 landings. Starhopper has done its job and now passes the torch to SpaceX’s orbital prototypes, known as Starship Mk1 and Mk2. SpaceX is currently building Mk1 at Boca Chica and Mk2 in Florida. Both rockets will look more like the promised sci-fi Starship, but they might not have the full complement of Raptor engines. CEO Elon Musk has promised at least three, though. They’ll need at least that to reach orbit.
The test launches of Mk1 and Mk2 will give SpaceX that data it needs to finish the first fully operational Starships, which could begin flying as soon as 2021. SpaceX also needs to work on the first stage launch platform for the Starship, which is known as Super Heavy. The first major test of the Starship will be the lunar orbit mission, financed by Japanese fashion magnate Yusaku Maezawa around 2023. Musk has talked about sending people to Mars as early as the mid-2020s, but that seems a bit overly optimistic.