SpaceX fires up 3-engine Starship SN8 prototype ahead of epic test flight

SpaceX’s next-gen Starship vehicle just took a big step toward its next milestone leap.

Early this morning (Oct. 20), SpaceX lit up the three Raptor engines on its SN8 (“Serial No. 8”) Starship prototype in a brief “static fire” test at the company’s South Texas site, near the beachside village of Boca Chica. 

Neither SpaceX nor company founder and CEO Elon Musk had commented publicly about the trial by the time this story was published, but it appeared to go well. (SpaceX watchers keep the Boca Chica site under constant surveillance, so there is third-party video of the static fire.)

Static fires, in which engines are ignited while a launch vehicle remains tethered to the ground, are a common precursor to flight. And SN8 does have a launch coming up — an uncrewed test flight later this month or next that will reach a maximum altitude of about 11 miles (18 kilometers), if all goes according to plan.

That will be the highest, by far, that a Starship prototype has ever flown. Three previous, single-engine iterations have reached about 500 feet (150 meters), most recently in August and September of this year, when the SN5 and SN6 vehicles took to the skies.

SN5 and SN6 looked like grain silos, as SN8 does now. But the newest vehicle will look far more spaceship-y when it takes off, sporting a nose cone and orientation-controlling body flaps, Musk has said. 

Those features will likely be installed soon. But SN8 may perform another static fire before that happens. In a tweet last month, Musk said the SN8 plan involved “static fire, checkouts, static fire, fly to 60,000 ft & back.”

The many prototypes are all informing the final design of Starship, which Musk has said will be powered by six Raptors — three “sea level” versions like the ones that fired up this morning, and three “vacuum” variants with much larger nozzles, which are optimized for in-space use. The 165-foot-tall (50 m) Starship vehicle will launch from Earth atop a huge rocket called Super Heavy, which will sport about 30 Raptors of its own. 

Both vehicles will be fully and rapidly reusable. SpaceX eventually plans to use Starship and Super Heavy for all of its spaceflight needs, from launching satellites to carrying people and payloads to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations. 

For example, Starship is in the running to provide crewed lunar landing services for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land two astronauts at the moon’s south pole in 2024. 

The Raptor engine is also well suited for Mars colonization, one of the chief long-term goals of Musk and SpaceX. Raptors are fueled by liquid oxygen and methane, both of which can be made efficiently on the Red Planet using local resources, Musk has stressed. (Merlin engines, which power SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, employ liquid oxygen and a form of kerosene.)


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