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Starship prototype
Which is the illustration, and which is the actual Starship Hopper test rocket? The real rocket is on the left — and take note of the Starman standing by one of the fins. (Elon Musk via Twitter)

For weeks, photographers have been snapping pictures of a retro-looking, shiny stainless-steel rocket that’s been taking shape at SpaceX’s launch site in South Texas — and tonight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk declared that assembly of the first Starship short-hop test rocket is complete.

Musk tweeted a picture of what looks to be a roughly 120-foot-tall “Starship Hopper,” composed of three sections that were put together at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility.

“This is an actual picture, not a rendering,” Musk wrote. But the rocket does look eerily like the illustration that Musk shared several days earlier — or, for that matter, the pointy-topped rockets that were all the rage in the 1940s.

Starship is the latest incarnation of the spaceship formerly known as the Interplanetary Transport System, Mars Colonial Transporter, the Big Falcon Rocket or the BFR.

Musk says the refuelable Starship, when paired with a huge rocket booster known as the Super Heavy, could be used for transcontinental point-to-point trips on Earth, satellite constellation deployment, voyages around the moon and to the lunar surface, and journeys to Mars and back.

A new type of stainless-steel alloy is being used because that’s the best way for the craft to shed heat as it zooms through the atmosphere. “Starship will look like liquid silver,” Musk wrote.

The craft that has been taking shape in Texas is meant to fly short hops to practice launches and landings, just as SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket platform and its successor, the F9R Dev, were used as test beds for Falcon 9 booster landings in the 2012-2014 time frame.

Although Musk declared that assembly was finished, there’s more work still to be done. For example, shock absorbers have to be installed on the feet of the landing legs. The engines on the rocket will also be replaced with honest-to-goodness, methane-fueled Raptor engines.

“Engines currently on Starship hopper are a blend of Raptor development and operational parts,” Musk explained last weekend. “First hopper engine to be fired is almost finished assembly in California. Probably fires next month.”

Short-hop tests could begin in February or March. “This is for suborbital VTOL tests,” he said in one of tonight’s tweets. “Orbital version is taller, has thicker skins (won’t wrinkle) and a smoothly curving nose section.”

Musk said he plans to provide a detailed update on the Starship architecture in March or April. The first scaled-up, orbital-class prototype should be done around June, he said.

The aim is to have the Starship and the Super Heavy booster ready for passengers by the mid-2020s, in order to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and an entourage of artists around the moon … and set the stage for Mars trips.

SpaceX has clearly picked up the pace of Starship development in the past month, and the fact that the company is more than halfway through a $500 million funding round could have something to do with that.

It’s interesting that Starship assembly has been taking place outside in full view of SpaceX paparazzi. Here’s a sampling of pictures from the past month:

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