As part of the Starship program, SpaceX began experimenting with earlier prototypes in late 2019 and early 2020, losing three vehicles during various proof tests. In May, the company successfully tested a full-scale tank section of its Starship vehicle (SN4) for the first time with a single Raptor engine. It was later lost due to a ground-systems issue.
Then, in August, and again in September, it flew two different vehicles—SN5 and SN6—on short hops to 150 meters. These flying contraptions looked something like flying spray paint cans as they rose above the scrubby Texas coastal plain, but they provided valuable experience to the company's engineers, who learned to control the Raptor engine in flight and pushed the pressure limits on its fuel tanks.
Since then, work has proceeded on developing SN8 to make a far higher flight. For this, SpaceX needed to add large flaps to the tank section, and a nose cone. This vehicle more closely resembles what the final Starship vehicle will look like. It will ultimately have six Raptor engines. This will include three engines optimized for thrust at sea-level, and three more with larger nozzles optimized for thrust in the vacuum of space.
Starship is intended to serve as a reusable upper stage as part of SpaceX's next-generation launch system. This will also include a large rocket, named Super Heavy, that will propel Starship toward orbit. SpaceX employees at the Boca Chica work site have begun assembling the first of these Super Heavy test vehicles, which is likely to undergo an iterative design process like Starship, which has included some test failures along the way.
The combined stack of the rocket and its Starship upper stage may attempt an orbital flight as soon as next year. At a virtual meeting of the Mars Society on Friday, the company's founder and chief engineer, Elon Musk, said he was "80 to 90 percent confident" the company would reach orbit with Starship in 2021.
SpaceX is counting on Starship to eventually replace its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, which in only a decade has become the United States' most experienced rocket, with 95 launches. Starship will loft cargo missions and ultimately, SpaceX hopes, large crews to the Moon and Mars. NASA has given the company an initial contract, worth $135 million, to study landing astronauts on the Moon as part of its Artemis Program.
Listing image by NASASpaceflight.com