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Starhooper
SpaceX’s Starhopper fires its methane-fueled Raptor engine during a test hop. (Elon Musk via Twitter)

A prototype rocket that looks more like a water tower took a 500-foot-high hop today in Texas, blazing a methane-fueled trail for a spaceship that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk plans to send to the moon and Mars within a few years.

SpaceX’s Starhopper served as a test vehicle for Musk’s Starship launch system – which would consist of a Super Heavy booster with 35 next-generation Raptor engines, plus a Starship craft with six Raptors.

Starship could be used to loft people, cargo or fuel out of Earth orbit and onward to deep space. “One day Starship will land on the rusty sands of Mars,” Musk wrote in a tweet after today’s test.

If Musk’s vision comes to fruition on his current timetable, Starship’s first Mars landing could happen in the mid-2020s. But he had a less ambitious goal for the Starhopper rocket that was tested today.

Starhopper’s mission was to gauge the oomph of a single methane-fueled Raptor engine as it sent a squat, 30-foot-wide tank structure to a height of 500 feet (150 meters) and brought it back down to a landing pad at SpaceX’s launch facility near Boca Chica in South Texas.

SpaceX faced a couple of delays in planning today’s hop: First, Musk had to wait to win clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to go to the required altitude. Then, during Monday’s first launch attempt, a glitch involving the Raptor engine’s ignition system forced a scrub at literally the last second. No such snags cropped up today.

Today’s hop followed up on a 60-foot-high (18-meter-high) hop that Starhopper took a month ago. That trial launch took place at night, and the sight was obscured by clouds of rocket exhaust. This one, in contrast, occurred in full daylight just after 6 p.m. CT (4 p.m. PT) and featured the Starhopper’s majestic rise high above the pad.

“Congrats SpaceX team!!” Musk tweeted afterward.

So what’s next? Going forward, this Starhopper is meant to serve as a vertical test stand for Raptor engines. SpaceX teams at Boca Chica and at Cape Canaveral in Florida are already working on two next-step Starship prototypes that will each make use of three Raptors.

Those rocket ships could hop as high as 12 miles (20 kilometers) within a few months, Musk said in a tweet.

Musk has promised to lay out the details behind the Starship launch system and his latest vision for deep-space exploration and settlement as early as next month.

Past versions of the vision have included putting Starship into commercial operation by as early as 2021, launching a robotic mission to Mars by 2022, sending Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and other passengers around the moon in 2023 or so, and getting astronauts to Mars in the 2024 time frame.

If Starship turns out to be as reliable and reusable as Musk hopes, he expects the per-pound cost of sending payloads into space to fall significantly below the levels achievable with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket.

He also envisions using Starship for point-to-point travel between destinations on Earth, for high-volume satellite deployment and on-orbit servicing, and for a host of deep-space scientific missions.

Will Musk’s multibillion-dollar bet on Starship pay off? We’ll find out for sure in the next few years, but today’s successful test suggests at the very least that Musk and his SpaceX team are at the top of their game.

Extra points: SpaceX has another cause for celebration today: Its robotic Dragon cargo capsule successfully returned to Earth today from the International Space Station after a monthlong stay, filled with more than 2,700 pounds of scientific experiments and other cargo. Splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, off the California coast, came at 1:21 p.m. PT.

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