Sep 3, 2019 - Science

The future of SpaceX's Starship

Starhopper flying through the sky above Texas. Photo: SpaceX

Starhopper flying through the sky above Texas. Photo: SpaceX

Last week, SpaceX launched the final test of Starhopper, a prototype of its Starship spacecraft that is designed to eventually take 100 people at a time to deep space destinations like the Moon or Mars.

Context: SpaceX is building on the reusability of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets with Starship, but the new interplanetary system will have some key differences.

  • The Starship and Super Heavy rockets will be powered by SpaceX's Raptor engines, while the company's current rockets make use of Merlin engines.
  • Super Heavy and Starship are each expected to fly up to 1,000 times, according to SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
  • Raptor engines use methane as fuel, and it might be possible to extract methane from Mars or other bodies for use as propellant one day.

Details: The successful Starhopper test paves the way for SpaceX's plans to test 2 more prototypes currently being built in Texas and Florida.

  • The two vehicles, called Mk1 and Mk2, represent some healthy competition between SpaceX teams, and it's only the start, according to Musk.
  • "Both sites will make many Starships," Musk said on Twitter in May. "This is a competition to see which location is most effective. Answer might be both."
  • SpaceX has said that the first commercial Starship flights could begin as early as 2021. The company currently has 1 confirmed Starship mission announced for 2023, when a group of artists are expected to take a trip around the Moon.

What to watch: Musk said that the company is planning on a 20-kilometer (12-mile) flight of Mk1 in October, with an orbital test to follow. Musk is expected to update the public on the progress of Starship development on Sept. 28.

Go deeper: Mars' spacecraft go on summer vacation

Go deeper