SpaceX's latest Starship prototype has been stacked in preparation for an ambitious test flight that will take the vehicle far higher than any of its predecessors have gone.
SpaceX personnel attached Starship SN8's ("Serial No. 8") nose cone yesterday (Oct. 22) at the company's South Texas site, near the Gulf Coast village of Boca Chica. The vehicle is now in its flight configuration, poised for an uncrewed hop to a planned altitude of about 9 miles (15 kilometers).
SN8 has already taken a big step toward that hop, igniting its three Raptor engines in a "static fire" test earlier this week. The vehicle will likely perform a second static fire before lifting off, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter last month.
Starship is the huge, next-gen vehicle that SpaceX is building to get people and payloads to distant destinations such as the moon and Mars, launch satellites to orbit and perform all of the company's other spaceflight needs.
The 165-foot-tall (50 meters) Starship vehicle will launch from Earth atop a giant rocket known as Super Heavy, which has yet to fly even in prototype form. Both elements of this spaceflight system will be fully reusable, Musk has said; Super Heavy will return to Earth for vertical landings, and Starship will make multiple trips to and from the moon, Mars or wherever else it has been sent. (Starship will be powerful enough to launch itself off the moon and Mars, but it will need Super Heavy's help to get off Earth.)
SpaceX is iterating toward the final Starship design via a series of prototypes, three of which have already made brief test hops. Starships SN5 and SN6, for example, flew about 500 feet (150 m) high in August and September of this year, respectively.
Those two prototypes had just one Raptor engine and no nose cone. SN8 is another beast altogether because it's going so much higher; in addition to the nose cone and three Raptors, SN8 sports body flaps to increase stability in flight. (The full-fledged Starship will be powered by six Raptors, and Super Heavy will have about 30 of the engines, Musk has said.)
SpaceX aims to get the mature Starship model up and running relatively soon. Starship is in the running to land astronauts on the moon for NASA's Artemis program, and the agency wants the first of these crewed touchdowns to take place in 2024.
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.