Elon Musk Says SpaceX's Starhopper Prototype Survived Fireball, May Fly Next Week

Starhopper apparently made it through its unplanned trial by fire just fine.

The vehicle, a prototype of SpaceX's Mars-colonizing Starship spacecraft, was engulfed in flames following a routine static-fire test of its next-generation Raptor engine Tuesday (July 16) at the company's South Texas facility. 

But Starhopper emerged pretty much unscathed from the incident, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted Thursday (18).

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"Yeah, big advantage of being made of high-strength stainless steel: not bothered by a little heat!" Musk wrote, responding to a Twitter follower who asked if Starhopper was OK. "Post-test fuel leak, but no major damage," Musk added in another tweet.

SpaceX conducts static-fire tests ahead of all launches, including test missions, to ensure vehicles are ready to fly. Tuesday's trial was designed to pave the way for a big Starhopper jaunt — its first untethered test flight, which will take the craft to a maximum altitude of about 65 feet (20 meters), according to Musk.

Starhopper has made two brief hops to date, both of them in early April. In both cases, the vehicle barely cleared the ground and was tethered to terra firma for safety's sake.

The coming "hover test" was originally scheduled to occur this week. Tuesday's fireball has delayed things, but not by much; SpaceX is now targeting next week, Musk said in another tweet Thursday. 

This first iteration of Starhopper has just a single Raptor. Future, higher-flying versions of the vehicle will feature three engines, Musk has said, and the operational, 100-passenger Starship will have six.

Starship will launch atop a giant rocket called the Super Heavy, which will sport 31 Raptors of its own. Both Starship and Super Heavy will be fully and rapidly reusable, Musk has said.

SpaceX aims to begin commercial operations with the Starship/Super Heavy duo as early as 2021, company representatives have said. The first contracted missions will likely loft communications satellites. But the system will launch people shortly thereafter, if all goes according to plan; Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has booked a round-the-moon mission on Starship, with liftoff targeted for 2023.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.