SpaceX Test Fires Rocket Engine That Could Take Humans To Mars And Beyond

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The test took place during the Super Bowl yesterdayElon Musk/SpaceX

SpaceX has successfully test fired its powerful new Raptor rocket engine, which could take humans to Mars and other destinations on the company’s Starship vehicle in the not-too-distant future.

On Twitter yesterday, Sunday February 3, CEO Elon Musk tweeted two videos showing the first full-scale Raptor engine being tested at the company’s Rocket Development and Test Facility in McGregor, Texas. “First firing of Starship Raptor flight engine!” Musk said. “So proud of great work by @SpaceX team!!”

The accompanying videos show the rocket engine bursting to life while attached to a test stand, which keeps it stationary as it fires. The engine mostly uses methane as fuel, similar to Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, which is designed to be cleaner than traditional rocket fuels like kerosene. Mars also has plenty of methane that could be used as fuel in the engine.

(Warning, the second video below is quite loud)

Seven of these Raptor engines will be used on the company’s Starship vehicle, a spaceship in development that will supposedly be capable of taking 100 people to the Moon, Mars, or even further into the Solar System. This will be lofted into space by a reusable rocket called the Super Heavy booster, equipped with 31 Raptor engines, with a possible first flight in the early 2020s.

Earlier this year, SpaceX appeared set to start “hop” tests of a prototype of its Starship vehicle in Texas very soon, although that has been slightly delayed after winds damaged the vehicle. The vehicle will use three engines to perform a test launch and landing, similar to how SpaceX conducted tests of its Grasshopper vehicle prior to its Falcon booster landings.

“The really significant thing will be seeing [Raptor] flight tests in the Hopper,” Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told me. “Flying an engine is different from firing it in a test stand!”

Starship is designed to take 100 people to MarsSpaceX

Developing this engine is a key goal for SpaceX, which is increasingly ramping up its ambitions to start flights to the Moon and beyond with its Starship vehicle. Already last year it announced one its first passengers on a trip to the Moon, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, some time in 2023. Beyond that, the company has made no secret of its desire to take humans to Mars.

“The Raptor engine is a key enabling technology for SpaceX’s lofty future ambitions,” industry analyst Caleb Williams from SpaceWorks told me. “The test demonstrates SpaceX’s commitment to the overall Starship program and gives investors a reason to feel confident that development is progressing in a meaningful way.”

Starship and the Super Heavy rocket are being developed alongside continued operation of SpaceX’s existing fleet, which includes the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon series of spacecraft. The latter will be used to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as this summer, while the Falcon Heavy could launch for a second time next month.

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