SpaceX Starhopper Vehicle Pressing for First “Hop”

Technicians work on the Starship prototype “Starhopper” at it’s construction site in Boca Chia, Texas.  Credit: nasaspaceflight.com

Activity is picking up at the SpaceX launch site in Boca Chia, Texas that is still under construction.  The picture above depicts the prototype of the “Starship” vehicle that will take humans to the moon and eventually Mars in the not too distant future. There is already a mission for the operational vehicle that will orbit the moon called the “Dear Moon” mission that will include a Japanese billionaire that will have seven or eight other people (artists) that will accompany him on the journey so the others can share the experience with the world through their artistry. This vehicle, however, is the very first prototype of that operational vehicle. Starhopper will be used in short durations or for suborbital “hops”, and the orbital prototype is now under construction at Boca Chia, Texas.

The testing of Starhopper was supposed to happen earlier this year beginning in February or March according to Elon Musk on Twitter, but a severe storm with damaging winds in January toppled over the vehicle and severely damaged the nose section of the vehicle. While repairs were done to the business end of the rocket, it was later determined that a new nose cone will not be constructed because Musk said it “wasn’t needed” due to the short duration flights it would be conducting.

In mid-March, a series of notices went out to the residents of the Boca Chia area and the beach was closed due to the testing of Starhopper. The week of March 22, there were tanking tests done on the prototype and there were live streams of the test that were being posted to YouTube in hopes to catch the test firing of the Raptor engine that was installed the week before. During these short hops, only one of the SpaceX developed Raptor engines will be used, and for orbital trips, three of the engines will power the test vehicles.

Starhopper will use vehicle-produced vapor, including liquid oxygen and liquid methane, as fuel. The same propellants will be used to fuel the first stage in which “Starship” will sit atop. Now called “Super Heavy”, the stage was once called “BFR” or the “Big Falcon Rocket”.

On March 25th, I was watching a YouTube stream by the “Everyday Astronaut”, which if you haven’t seen his posts, I highly recommend it, because he is very entertaining and brings the excitement and the human experience that fellow space enthusiasts would really enjoy. Tim Dodd (Everyday Astronaut) was taking questions from viewers and giving information about Starhopper, the Super Heavy, and the Raptor engines as Tim had his own camera (just over a mile from the launch pad) pointed at Starhopper as vapor was being vented, similar to past Wet Dress Rehearsals (tanking tests). It was not known if it was going to be just another test or if the Raptor engine would be ignited because SpaceX was not releasing any information about what type of testing it was doing.

The video blog was going and suddenly there was a burst of steam from the base of Starhopper. No one knew what had happened because there was no indication of an engine being fired. As time went by, Todd (Everyday Astronaut) re-watched the footage and came to realize that it was a pre-burner test of the Raptor engine. The engine wasn’t ignited but it was the closest to engine ignition that Starhopper had come that week.

Ever since that test, no news has come out of the area about a possible test firing of the Starhopper vehicle. SpaceX is now preparing for the first commercial launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket with a countdown dress rehearsal, fueling, and brief firing of the 27 Merlin engines at Launch Pad 39A now scheduled for Wednesday, April 3 between noon and 8pm. As of this writing, the launch is scheduled to occur on Sunday, April 7th at 6:36pm EDT.


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