A prototype of SpaceX’s experimental Starship spacecraft took to the air for the first time on Tuesday for a test flight that reached an altitude of about 150 meters.
This initial “hop” of the vehicle, which is called Starship SN5, occurred at 6:57pm local time at SpaceX’s launch complex in Boca Chica, Texas. Previous ground tests of this generation of Starship prototypes had resulted in failures including catastrophic explosions.
Starship is is an early phase of development, but SpaceX ultimately envisions it evolving into an enormous reusable spacecraft that could ferry as many as 100 human passengers on trips to the Moon, Mars, and perhaps even more distant destinations in the solar system.
SpaceX previously flew a smaller Starship prototype, called Starhopper, multiple times at its Boca Chica facility (Starhopper was 60-feet tall, while the Starship SN5 stands at about 100 feet).
These early versions of the spacecraft are designed to test out core systems, such as the fueling and liftoff processes, while gradually scaling up the vehicle in size. New elements are often integrated into successive tests to shore up the vulnerabilities exposed by previous ones. For instance, SpaceX purposely exploded its SN7 vehicle in June by filling its tanks with cold liquid nitrogen to probe its mechanical limits.
The final version of Starship is expected to be 160 feet tall, not including the 230-foot Super Heavy reusable rocket that would help blast it into space. The Super Heavy would return to Earth after deploying the top component (second stage) into orbit for long duration spaceflights. SpaceX hopes that this last iteration of the project will be ready for flight tests within the next few years.
The test vehicles are powered by SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engines, which run on methane and oxygen and provide twice as much thrust as the Merlin engines currently used on the company’s Falcon 9 rockets.
As its name implies, Starship SN5 is the fifth version of this prototype series, and the largest version of the spacecraft to fly so far. Its four predecessors met with various fates: SN1 dramatically blew up during a pressure test in February, SN2 was pared down to focus on ground tests and was never intended to fly, SN3 collapsed during a cryogenic proof test in April, and SN4 exploded into flames during a static fire test in May.
SpaceX is already developing at least two more Starship SN vehicles, so this is probably not the last prototype of this series to take to the sky.