SpaceX's SN20 Starship prototype just took its first fiery breath.
SpaceX conducted a brief engine test at its South Texas facilities last night (Oct. 18) with SN20, which the company is prepping to make the Starship program's first-ever orbital test flight.
The blaze-up was rather muted, suggesting that last night's action was a preburner test with SN20's Raptor engines, as NASASpaceflight's Chris Bergin noted. (Each Raptor has two preburners, which heat and mix the engine's liquid methane and liquid oxygen propellants.) But this test could soon be followed by a full-on "static fire," in which SN20's engines roar to life in earnest while the 165-foot-tall (50 meters) vehicle remains tethered to the ground.
The Starship system, which SpaceX is developing to take people and cargo to the moon, Mars and beyond, consists of a spacecraft called Starship and a huge first-stage booster known as Super Heavy. Both of these elements are designed to be fully reusable, and both are powered by Raptors — six for Starship and 29 for Super Heavy.
SpaceX has flown multiple three-engine Starship prototypes on high-altitude test flights. But SN20 will be the first to fly with six Raptors and the first to reach orbit, if all goes according to plan. SpaceX aims to launch the vehicle atop a 29-engine Super Heavy on a key uncrewed orbital test flight in the coming months.
It's unclear exactly when that flight will take place, and not just because testing schedules are inherently uncertain: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is conducting an environmental assessment of Starship's orbital launch site in South Texas. The FAA released a draft of its report last month and will be accepting public comments on the document until Nov. 1. Those comments will be incorporated into the final assessment.
In August, SpaceX stacked SN20 atop its Super Heavy, known as Booster 4, for the first time, creating a vehicle 395 feet (120 m) tall — the tallest rocket ever built. The duo were de-stacked in short order, however, so technicians could perform more work on each element.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
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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.