BOCA CHICA, TX – The SpaceX Starhopper is preparing for it’s big 200m hop! What’s the plan? Let’s find out.
Today we’re talking about the SpaceX Starhopper which is the prototype development vehicle for their much larger Starship and Super Heavy rockets that are going to take people to the Moon and Mars. Before they can even think about getting people to the Moon or to Mars they first have to nail down the vehicle design and make sure that that’s all set and ready to go. As part of that, they’ve built the Starhopper which is a bit of a play on name for the old Falcon 9’s development vehicle which was called Grasshopper.
Prior to the Falcon 9 being ready for flight they first needed to do some incremental tests getting higher and higher in altitude as they became more comfortable with the vehicle’s performance and characteristics. SpaceX’s grasshopper started in about 2012 with some smaller hops around six feet or about 1.8 meters. They gradually built up further and further until they got to about 2500 feet which is about 750 meters and all of those flights in 2012 and 2013 were hugely instrumental in getting the Falcon 9 to where it is today both with flight performance and for those landings.
Fast forward to 2019 and SpaceX is at it again with their next-generation launch vehicle and that’s the Starship and the Super Heavy booster. Before they’re ready for the Starship or the Super Heavy, they’re starting with some smaller incremental – tests this is the Starhopper platform.
The Star hopper platform started to come together in December 2018 and the exterior portion of it was put together incredibly rapidly, in about six weeks or so. The star hopper originally started around 128 feet in height (39 meters), but sadly some serious wind storms came through Boca Chica, Texas and damaged that original nose cone. After trying to evaluate what the damage was and deciding what to do, SpaceX eventually decided to go – meh – what do we need a nose cone for, for a rocket that’s barely gonna get off the ground?! Let’s just fly it like it is. Which is where we get this look which kind of looks like just a big giant washing machine with legs on it or a keg with legs or something. I don’t know, it just looks crazy, but it’s kind of cool.
The Starhopper is powered by their new Raptor engines that is a methane and liquid oxygen engine or methalox. This is a little different than a Falcon 9 which is fueled with RP-1. That’s rocket grade kerosene and liquid oxygen. So even the engine is an entirely new concept for SpaceX.
The Starship / Super Heavy combo will have up to 35 of those Raptor engines on the bottom of it which is insane, but the Starhopper only has one and that one little engine started showing its power back in April 2019. The first two hops for Starhopper were pretty small – just a couple of centimeters on the first one and the second one was still not too much further, but it reached the end of its tethers that were holding it down to the ground. Then on July 24, 2019 they attempted to do a much larger hop, but had to abort only seconds after ignition. Some thought that this might lead to some delays, but on July 25, 2019 – the very next day – SpaceX actually did complete that hop to about 59 feet (18 meters) and that brings us to the big hop that’s coming up here starting with a potential launch as early as Friday this week.
SpaceX is pretty tight-lipped on the development of this rocket but some super sleuths watch some of the FAA notices and notice that there’s an FAA NOTAM for August 16th, 17th and 18th right over the Boca Chica launch site this is a pretty good indication that that 200 meter test is going to happen as early as Friday. For my fellow Americans, that 200 meter hop is about 650 feet which is a pretty big jump up from their last test, but don’t forget SpaceX also has all of the Falcon 9 development and all the flights in the past that they can pull from the experience. Even though this is a different launch vehicle so some of the test procedures or maybe even the tests themselves can be condensed down into fewer test flights. Plus, this is also just a prototype development vehicle. After this final 200 meter hop of the Starhopper, that will be retired and they will move on to the orbital prototype for Starship.
The starship orbital prototype is actually being built in two different locations. The mark one (mk1) is in Boca Chica, Texas where we’ve seen the Starhopper flights and the mark 2 (mk2) vehicle is over on the Space Coast in Florida near Cape Canaveral. Those orbital prototypes will use three of the raptor engines so it’ll have a bit more kick to it and SpaceX’s Elon Musk also says that they’re almost ready.
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait until around August 24, 2019 when Elon Musk has mentioned that SpaceX will do a Starship presentation and presumably update us on any design changes that have resulted from their testing campaign.