SpaceX could test rocket ship built to send people to Mars as early as today

Test Hopper — a prototype of SpaceX's Starship system — stands with its nosecone assembled at the company's launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. (Copyright Jaime Almaguer)

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk and headed by Gwynne Shotwell, is about to test-launch its first prototype of a rocket ship that might eventually send people to Mars.

The company may begin firing up its “Test Hopper” prototype as soon as Monday, according to a notice stuffed into the mailboxes of some residents near Boca Chica Beach, which is at the southernmost tip of Texas.

SpaceX started building out its launch site in Boca Chica in 2014 for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. However, Musk said in early 2018 that Boca Chica “will be dedicated to” the new Mars vehicle, called Starship.

On March 8, SpaceX crawled the lower section of its mirror-polished Test Hopper out to a launch pad at Boca Chica. Shortly afterward, engineers attached a single truck-sized Raptor rocket engine— the newest and most powerful such machine SpaceX has ever developed — to the base of the vehicle.

Test Hopper can’t launch into space, but it will trial crucial hardware and ideas that SpaceX needs to create a full-scale Starship (formerly called Big Falcon Rocket).

spacex starship super heavy stainless steel rocket booster spaceship illustration copyright of kimi talvitie 4
Left to right: An illustration of SpaceX’s “test hopper,” Starship spaceship, its booster, a Falcon 9 rocket and integrated Starship launch system.
© Kimi Talvitie

Starship is designed to have two fully reusable parts — a Starship spaceship and “Super Heavy” booster — standroughly 400 feet tall, and use a “bleeding” atmospheric reentry system.

If Musk’s self-described “aspirational” dreams for the system come true, Starship may reach orbit in 2020, send its first crew around the moon in 2023, and launch the first people toward Mars in 2024. Ultimately, it might ferry up to 100 people and 150 tons of cargo at a time to the red planet.

But first, SpaceX needs to prove the basic concepts behind Starship work with its Test Hopper.

Comments from a company representative, as well as the notice reportedly handed to some Boca Chica residents, suggest that SpaceX will attempt Test Hopper’s first integrated rocket-engine firing as soon as Monday, followed by tethered “hop” test launches shortly thereafter.

Following the publication of this story, Musk confirmed that SpaceX will “hopefully” try hopping this week.

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