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SpaceX scrubs ‘hop test’ of its Mars rocket prototype with one second to spare

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It’s not clear why SpaceX halted the launch, though last-minute scrubs are not uncommon even during routine rocket launches. Computers or flight controllers may have caught an abnormal reading about the rocket’s health and stopped the engines from igniting. SpaceX did not disclose the reason for the delay, though the company still has the ability to conduct the test launch on Wednesday or Thursday.

SpaceX has not revealed what day or time the company is now aiming to conduct the test flight.

The hulking rocket is an early prototype for Starship, a 160-foot-tall spaceship proposed by Musk that he hopes will be used for hauling massive satellites into Earth’s orbit, shuttling people between cities at breakneck speeds and — eventually — establishing a human settlement on Mars.
The company is still a long way from building an operational Starship spacecraft. So far, it has constructed eight different prototypes that have been used to test how well their steel frames perform under pressure and to conduct suborbital “hop tests,” which have tested how the rocket’s gargantuan engines can steer the vehicle to soft, pinpoint landings after flight. Musk has said the technique is essential for recovering and reusing the vehicles as well as one day conducting a controlled landing on the Moon or Mars.

Previous test flights of Starship prototypes have traveled less than about 500 feet in the air and made use of only one engine. The vehicle that will be used on SpaceX’s next Starship test flight, called SN8, will be the first to have three engines installed. And it will be by far the highest and riskiest Starship test flight yet.

Musk has attempted to dampen expectations, saying in one tweet that he predicted the SN8 vehicle has a one-in-three chance of landing safely back on Earth.

Initially, Musk had said via Twitter that SpaceX would launch the SN8 prototype to 60,000 feet — about 11 miles — or higher. That would have taken the vehicle into the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere, where weather balloons are flown and supersonic airplane flights are conducted. But the company later decided to target 40,000 feet, according to Reuters.

The 40,000-foot test launch, however, is still expected to give the Starship plenty of room to conduct a “landing flip maneuver,” which will allow engineers to test the vehicle’s ability to reorient itself for landing as it would during the final leg of an orbital flight.

It’s not clear why the company decided to lower the altitude of this test flight, though 40,000 and 60,000 feet are still well below the 62-mile mark, which is widely considered to mark the edge of outer space.

The SN8 rocket wouldn’t be able to reach Earth’s orbit on its own anyway. The final Starship design will need six rocket engines, and even then the vehicle will require a separate, hulking rocket booster, dubbed the Super Heavy, to blast the spacecraft into orbit because that trip will require it to travel at speeds topping 17,000 miles per hour. It’s not yet clear if the company has started development or testing of the Super Heavy booster.

For a journey to Mars, Starship will also eventually need to reach “escape velocity” — about 25,000 miles per hour — which is the speed required to rip a spacecraft away from Earth’s gravitational pull, allowing it to travel into more distant regions of our solar system.

Musk founded SpaceX around his interplanetary travel ambitions, claiming he wanted to develop the technology to allow humans to settle the Red Planet.

SpaceX’s plans for a Mars settlement bring up numerous technological, political and ethical questions. It’s not clear for example, if Musk envisions working with Earthly governments to establish a space colony or if he intends to create a sovereign nation, which could violate existing international treaties that govern human behavior in outer space. One of the most challenging hurdles may also be financial: Not even Musk has ventured to guess an all-in cost estimate.
But Starship could have plenty of other practical purposes closer to home. The spacecraft could be capable of hauling massive satellites or research telescopes into Earth’s orbit, resupplying the International Space Station, or, perhaps, shuttling people between cities at unprecedented speeds. In a September 2017 presentation, SpaceX said Starship could be “capable of taking people from any city to any other city on Earth in under one hour.”