SpaceX’s Starship reaches new heights as Elon Musk teases Q1 2019 hop tests

SpaceX's first full-scale Starship prototype has reached its full ~130 foot (~40m) height just eight weeks after assembly began. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

In a burst of activity that should probably be expected at this point but still feels like a complete surprise, SpaceX technicians took a major step towards completing the first Starship hopper prototype by combining the last two remaining sections (aft and nose) scarcely six weeks after assembly began.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also took to Twitter late last week to offer additional details and post what appears to be the first official render of Starship’s hopper prototype, which is now closer than ever before to looking like the real deal thanks to the incredible drive of the company’s southernmost employees. With the massive rocket’s rough aeroshell and structure now more or less finalized, Musk’s targeted February/March hop test debut remains ambitious to the extreme but is now arguably far from impossible.

Where there was literally just a tent and some construction equipment barely eight weeks ago, SpaceX’s Boca Chica facilities now sport one of the most bizarre developments in recent aerospace history — a vast, ~30 ft (9m) diameter rocket being built en plein air out of tubes and sheets of common steel. At the current pace of work, 24 hours is often enough for wholly unexpected developments to appear, and this Starship hopper (Starhopper) is beginning to look more and more like its concept art as each day passes.

Aside from a few well-earned slow days last weekend, SpaceX technicians, engineers, and contractors have spent the last week or so shaping Starhopper into a form more reminiscent of the conceptual render (clearly hand-painted) Musk posted on Saturday. This primarily involved stacking a tall conical nose section atop a separate cylindrical body section, followed by gradually cladding both the aft section’s legs and barrel in sheets of stainless steel, presumably intended to improve both its aesthetic and aerodynamic characteristics.

Notably, technicians have installed two out of three (?) aerodynamic shrouds at the top of each steel tube leg, bringing Starhopper’s appearance even closer to the smooth and polished aesthetic of its conceptual sibling.

Starhopper’s hopped-up hop test ETA

Musk later replied to a question related to Starhopper’s near-term schedule and stated that the nominal target for its first flight test was – almost unfathomably – four weeks away, although he admitted in the same response that that would probably translate into eight weeks due to “unforeseen issues”, placing the actual launch target sometime between February and March 2019. Just to reiterate, the site Starhopper is currently located on was quite literally empty – aside from the temporary tent – in late November 2018, barely more than six weeks ago.

To plan to go from a blank slate to actual integrated flight tests of a rocket – no matter how low-fidelity – that is 9m (~30 ft) in diameter, at least 40m (~130 ft) tall, could weigh as much as 500 tons (1.1M lbs), and may produce ~600 tons (~1.35M lb/f) of thrust at liftoff is extraordinarily ambitious even for SpaceX. At the end of the day, significant delays to Musk’s truly wild timeline are very likely, but it seems entirely possible at this point that Starhopper really could begin its first hop tests in the first half of 2019, kicking off a test program currently aiming for flights as high as 5 km (3.1 mi) and as long as 6 minutes.

A whole range of things will have to go perfectly right for a timeline as ambitious as this to be realized, including but not limited to successfully acceptance-testing three brand new and recently-redesigned Raptor engines, the completion of Starhopper’s unfamiliar structures, propellant tankage, plumbing, and avionics, and the completion of a rough launch and landing pad and integration facilities, if needed. Aside from those big ticket items, many dozens of other smaller but no less critical tasks will have to be completed with minimal to no unforeseen hurdles if hop tests are to begin just a few months from now.

Regardless, SpaceX has pulled off miraculous tasks much like this in its past, and the possibility that the company’s brilliant, dedicated, and admittedly overworked employees will do so again should not be discounted.

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SpaceX’s Starship reaches new heights as Elon Musk teases Q1 2019 hop tests
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