SpaceX is racking up wins this week, after a successful second launch attempt for its CRS-18 mission earlier this evening, and now with a first short-hop free flight for its StarHopper prototype spacecraft on Thursday night, again on its second try after a scrub earlier this week.
This test involved flying StarHopper to the relatively modest height of just 20 meters (around 65 feet, which is roughly how tall it is to begin with), where it moved around only very slightly, guiding itself under its own navigation. The StarHopper then returned to Earth as planned, so all indications are that this was a good test that went exactly as intended by the SpaceX crew.
StarHopper is a scaled-down test vehicle designed to help SpaceX run crucial preparation trials for the new Raptor engine ahead of building its full-scale Starship reusable spacecraft. Starship is the next launch vehicle SpaceX is developing, which is intended to be fully reusable (its current rockets are only partially able to be refurbished and reflow) and which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk envisions eventually being able to take over all mission activity for the company, including transfer of crew and cargo to Mars. Once ready, it’ll be paired with SpaceX’s future “Super Heavy” launch rocket for extra-orbital launch capabilities.
An untethered hop is a key milestone in SpaceX’s planned development, and it’s been trying to get this done for a couple of weeks now. Musk has already said that he anticipates flying the full-scale Starship prototype. Mark I and Mark II are in simultaneous development at Boca Chica in Texas and at SpaceX’s Florida facility. Next up, SpaceX will attempt a higher, 200 meter “hop” test with the StarHopper at the same site in around a week or so, according to Musk.