Skip to main content

SpaceX fires up Starship SN4 prototype as FAA issues launch license for test flights (video)

SpaceX can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Elon Musk's company is gearing up to launch its first-ever crewed mission on Saturday (May 30), a crucial test flight called Demo-2 that will send two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

Demo-2 employs SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket, and the flight will lift off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But today (May 28), in Texas, the company tested out a completely different vehicle, Starship SN4, that's designed to help pave humanity's path into very deep space. The same day, the FAA issued a launch license for the company's Starship trials in Texas.

Related: SpaceX's Starship and Super Heavy rocket in pictures

SpaceX briefly fired up the single Raptor engine of Starship SN4, the latest prototype of the company's Mars-colonizing spaceship. The Raptor blazed for a few seconds while the SN4 remained tethered to the ground at SpaceX's facilities near the South Texas village of Boca Chica.

It was the fourth "static fire" test for the SN4, and the second with this particular Raptor engine. The previous static fire blazed a little hot, scorching the base of the spacecraft, but the flames seemed to behave themselves this time around.

Musk has said he wants to take the SN4 out for a spin soon, on an uncrewed test flight to a target altitude of about 500 feet (150 meters). With four static fires now in the books, SN4 seems poised to take that leap. But the prototype won't get off the ground before Demo-2 does.

"I have redirected SpaceX’s priorities to be very focused on the crew launch," Musk told Aviation Week & Space Technology's Irene Klotz recently. "As a rough guess, I think we're a few weeks away from a hop."  

Related: SpaceX wants to send people to Mars. Here's what it might look like.

SpaceX has its paperwork in order to take Starship prototypes pretty high up, by the way. Today, the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued the company a two-year license to launch suborbital flights from the Boca Chica site. 

The final version of Starship will stand 165 feet (50 m) tall and be able to accommodate 100 passengers, Musk has said. The ship will be powered by six Raptors. It will launch off Earth atop a huge rocket called Super Heavy, which will sport 31 Raptors of its own. (Starship won't need Super Heavy to lift off from the moon or Mars, which have much weaker gravitational pulls than our planet does.)

Both Starship and Super Heavy will be fully and rapidly reusable, making the system affordable enough to enable all sorts of ambitious exploration projects, Musk has said. Chief among those envisioned feats is the colonization of Mars, which has been Musk's driving ambition for decades.

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

OFFER: Save 45% on 'All About Space' 'How it Works' and 'All About History'!

For a limited time, you can take out a digital subscription to any of our best-selling science magazines for just $2.38 per month, or 45% off the standard price for the first three months.View Deal

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

  • Sam
    No flames this time after shutdown. The flames from the burn off stack got so large that they were hitting SN-4 it looked like. They have been working on the nosecones. I read somewhere that Musk said no wings, so they are plugging holes where the wings were I think. The body is so large he may think wings are not needed on Earth. Might need them landing on Mars because of the thin atmosphere however I suppose.
    Reply
  • Torbjorn Larsson
    Sam said:
    No flames this time after shutdown. The flames from the burn off stack got so large that they were hitting SN-4 it looked like. They have been working on the nosecones. I read somewhere that Musk said no wings, so they are plugging holes where the wings were I think. The body is so large he may think wings are not needed on Earth. Might need them landing on Mars because of the thin atmosphere however I suppose.

    They are likely aiming at some form of hop, since they seem to have put a mass simulator were later SNX's will get their nosecone (now inclusive a LOX header tank mass and - looks like - integrated cold gas thrusters). Nosecones look awful right now, and they have scrapped some early production pathfinders.

    The actuators are not aerodynamic wings but skydiver steering brakes, they are AFAIK minimally needed in atmospheres to help push the Starship quickly from skydiver to tail landing position. (The 3 movable sea level engines as well as thrusters contribute too).

    I think the perspective in cameras situated hundreds of meters away comes out as terribly fooling. IIRC someone mentioned that the burn stack is 100 meter away and the Starship similarly distant from the rest of the ground installations. (Which isn't a lot of leeway if a 50 m craft on top of a test rig falls over ... but anyway.) IIRC Musk tweeted that a cooler for methane recycling is on its way.
    Reply
  • Hawkstein
    What happens to all the metal from each prototype? Can it be reused or is it waste?
    Reply