SpaceX's latest Starship prototype just fired its engines for the second time, potentially paving the way for a 9-mile-high (15 kilometers) test flight in the near future.
The SN8 ("Serial No. 8") vehicle blazed up for a few seconds Tuesday evening (Nov. 10) in a "static fire" test at SpaceX's South Texas facilities, near the seaside village of Boca Chica. Video of the test was captured by the South Padre Island tourism site Spadre.com.
Static fires, in which rocket engines ignite while the vehicle remains on the ground, are a common prelaunch checkout. SN8 had already performed one such test in the wee hours of Oct. 20.
Tuesday's trial was more dramatic than the first one in a couple of ways. First of all, SN8 looked much more like a real spaceship this time than it did last month, sporting a nose cone that SpaceX personnel had stacked atop its previously bare-bones body on Oct. 22.
In addition, Tuesday's static fire featured some minor fireworks; the engine ignition briefly sent sparks, or flaming shards of something, flying into the Texas night. But SN8 emerged apparently intact, so if something off-nominal happened, it didn't seem to be serious.
Starship is SpaceX's next-generation spaceflight system, which the company is developing to help colonize Mars, launch satellites to orbit and do everything else SpaceX needs done. The system consists of a 165-foot-tall (50 meters) spacecraft called Starship and a giant rocket known as Super Heavy, which will get its partner vehicle off Earth. (Starship will be powerful enough to launch itself off the moon and Mars, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said.)
Both of these fully reusable vehicles will be powered by SpaceX's new Raptor engine. Starship will sport six Raptors and Super Heavy will have about 30.
SpaceX is iterating toward the final Starship design via a series of increasingly ambitious prototypes. For example, SN8 features three Raptors, whereas none of its predecessors had more than one.
Those three engines will take SN8 far higher than any other Starship prototype has gone — about 9 miles (15 km) up, Musk has said. Three Starship vehicles have gotten off the ground to date, all flying to a maximum altitude of about 500 feet (150 meters). The stubby Starhopper did so in the summer of 2019, and SN5 and SN6 followed suit in August and September of this year, respectively.
SN8's big leap could be just around the corner now. In a September tweet, Musk said that the testing plan for SN8 involved "static fire, checkouts, static fire, fly to 60,000 ft & back." (He later amended the altitude target downward a bit.)
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.