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SpaceX's Starship SN9 prototype fires up rocket engines three times in one day

SpaceX's newest Starship prototype blazed to life a whopping three times today (Jan. 13), apparently keeping the vehicle on track for a high-altitude test flight in the near future.

The three-engine SN9 vehicle performed its second, third and fourth "static fire" tests in quick succession today (Jan. 13) at SpaceX's South Texas facilities, near the Gulf Coast village of Boca Chica. The engines lit up briefly at 1:28 p.m. EST (1828 GMT), again at 3:22 p.m. EST (2022 GMT) and then yet again at 4:36 p.m. EST (2136 GMT).

During static fires, engines blaze briefly while a vehicle remains tethered to the ground. SN9 already had one such test under its belt, having completed a short static fire on Jan. 6.

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"All three static fires completed & no RUDs!" SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter this afternoon. (RUD is short for "rapid unscheduled disassembly," Musk's preferred euphemism for "explosion.")

"Detanking & inspections now. Good progress towards our 'Hop in & go to Mars!' goal," he added in another tweet.

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These tests are part of the launch preparations for SN9, which will take to the skies in the coming days or weeks if all goes according to plan. SN9's flight is expected to be similar to the one performed last month by its predecessor, SN8, which soared about 7.8 miles (12.5 kilometers) into the South Texas skies.

SN8 is no more; it came down too fast and exploded in its designated landing zone. But the vehicle checked pretty much all of its other boxes, prompting SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk to declare the Dec. 9 test mission β€” the first-ever high-altitude flight for a Starship vehicle β€” a rousing success.

SpaceX is developing Starship to take people and payloads to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations. The transportation system consists of two reusable elements: a 165-foot-tall (50 meters) spacecraft called Starship and a gigantic rocket known as Super Heavy.

Both Starship and Super Heavy will be powered by SpaceX's next-generation Raptor engine. The final Starship will sport six Raptors, Musk has said, and Super Heavy will feature about 30 of the engines.

Starship will be powerful enough to launch itself off the moon and Mars, but it will need Super Heavy's help to get off our much more massive planet. (After getting Starship into Earth orbit, Super Heavy will come back down to Earth for a vertical landing, ideally directly on the launch stand.)

Musk has set an ambitious timeline for Starship, stating that the system should start launching people to Mars by 2026 and could even do so in 2024 "if we get lucky." So expect the testing in South Texas to ramp up considerably in the coming months and years.

We could see another static fire or two before SN9 gets aloft. SN8 performed four static fires over the course of about a month before it took flight, after all. Such tests are closely monitored by Starship watchers such as the tourism site Spadre.com.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. EST on Jan. 13 to include the news of the day's third static fire.

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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Mike Wall
SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER β€” Michael has been writing for Space.com since 2010. 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.