“Several Starship prototypes were destroyed during testing”

In April, SpaceX successfully pulled off the first ‘hop’ test for its Starship prototype, the SN5.

Last week, the company has once again repeated that feat with the SN6, a rocket which Elon Musk has previously referred to as a flying water tower, due to its missing nose cone and fins.

The launch and subsequent 150-metre (500 ft.) test flight of a prototype vehicle, designated SN6, took place in Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX called the test flight a “hop” because the rocket barely went any distance at all. The stainless steel cylinder performed the test flight Sept. 3, following a similar 500-foot hop by SpaceX’s SN5 prototype Aug. 4.

Despite its short flight time, the test was a success, as the Starship managed to take off, hover above the ground, and then safely land again all in one manoeuvre.

Musk says the next step for Starship will be to perform high altitude tests with the missing nose cone and fins attached to the rocket. The colossal Starship rocket will eventually serve as a long-duration spacecraft capable of carrying passengers or cargo to the moon, Mars, or anywhere else in space.

After another Starship hop test last week, SpaceX is set to build the first prototype for the next-gen rocket’s huge first stage booster. Meanwhile, testing will commence soon on the Raptor engine model needed for orbital Starship missions.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, said Aug. 31 the first test vehicle for the Starship’s “Super Heavy” booster could begin production as soon as last week, but there’s been no confirmation that a Super Heavy prototype is being assembled yet.

In a tweet on Saturday 12th September, Elon Musk said, “SN8 Starship with flaps and nosecone should be done in about a week. Then static fire, checkouts, static fire, fly to 60,000 ft & back.”

Raptor Engines

Three throttleable Raptor engines, each capable of producing up to 440,000 pounds of thrust, will allow SpaceX to attempt more ambitious Starship test flights. The addition of fins will also aid in high-altitude, higher-speed flights.

Eventually, SpaceX will mount six Raptor engines at the base of Starship. Three of the Raptors will be similar to the existing engine models flown to date, while three will be fitted with much larger nozzles.

A side-by-side comparison of two versions of SpaceX’s Raptor engine. At left is a Raptor with a standard nozzle designed for firings in the atmosphere. At right, a Raptor engine is fitted with a larger nozzle optimized for efficiency in the vacuum of space: SpaceX

Several Starship prototypes were destroyed during ground testing since SpaceX built the first Starship test vehicle last year. But SpaceX gathered critical data during those tests, allowing engineers to update design specifications and improve the Starship design.

“Building the production system so that we can build ultimately hundreds or thousands of Starships – that’s the hard part,” Musk said.

“But we’ve been making good progress on the productions system as people can see from the aerial photos of Boca Chica.”

For an orbital mission, the Starship will need six Raptor engines and a heat shield for re-entry. The entire stack will stand around 394 feet (120 meters) tall, according to SpaceX’s website.

With the nose cone added, the Starship vehicle itself will reach a height of around 164 feet, or 50 meters. The vehicle measures around 30 feet (9 meters) wide, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Asked when SpaceX might perform the first orbital Starship launch and re-entry, Musk replied: “Probably next year.”

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