SpaceX is gearing up for its first crewed flight for NASA with the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft, but Elon Musk’s spaceflight firm is also planning for the future with the Starship. This vessel, previously known as the BFR, is an extremely ambitious project that will eventually give SpaceX enough power to venture to the outer solar system. First, it has to remain intact during pressure testing, something the latest SN4 vehicle has finally achieved.
The Starship is still in the early phases of construction and testing. Last year, SpaceX successfully tested the “Starhopper” prototype with one of the company’s new Raptor engines. However, the full-scale prototypes haven’t fared well in pressure testing. SN1 blew its top in February, and both SN2 and SN3 suffered similar fates during the “cryo” testing phase, which simulates a full-pressure tank in the vacuum of space. SN4 is the first version of the rocket to survive that test.
The success of the SN4 prototype is a big step forward for the Starship program. The next step is to set up a static fire test with a single Raptor engine on the SN4. That could happen as soon as next week. Assuming it’s still in one piece, SpaceX will then conduct a brief flight up to 500 feet (150 meters) before setting down. Elon Musk says that the next variant (predictably called SN5) will feature the full-scale tank and a trio of Raptor engines. The final design calls for six Raptor engines on the Starship and a further 37 of them on the Super Heavy stage.
SN4 passed cryo proof! 😅 pic.twitter.com/EJakThZRGF
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2020
SpaceX has big plans for the Starship. Along with its Super Heavy launch stage, the Starship will be able to carry large payloads to Mars and beyond. Musk even promises Mars colonization programs with the Starship. The spacecraft will also be able to send smaller missions to the outer planets, something that was previously only possible with government-operated launch platforms.
It will probably take several more versions of the Starship before the craft is ready for orbital flight, and that says nothing about the Super Heavy platform. The rocket will need that extra boost to reach distant places like the Moon and Mars. Eventually, SpaceX will fly Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa on a trip around the moon. Musk has been hesitant to put a date on that with the recent setbacks, but previous reports pegged 2023 for the launch.
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