- SpaceX tried to launch, hover, and land a small steel rocket ship called Starhopper on Wednesday in South Texas.
- The vehicle is an early prototype of Starship, a far larger system designed to send people to the moon and Mars.
- Just after Starhopper’s engines ignited, engineers aborted the launch and the vehicle never lifted off the ground.
- Live video broadcasts recorded the moment the test began and abruptly ended. SpaceX has the opportunity to try another launch on Thursday evening.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
SpaceX tried to launch and fly its gleaming Starhopper rocket ship prototype into the skies above South Texas on Wednesday, but an issue with the vehicle’s propellant cut short the test flight.
Starhopper stands more than 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide, has three landing legs, and is made out of stainless steel.
The vehicle isn’t designed to fly into space though. It’s a test bed for technologies that could eventually power a much larger and more powerful launch system known as Starship.
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, envisions Starship as a nearly 400-foot-tall, fully reusable system that can ferry about 100 people and more than 100 tons of cargo at a time to Mars.
Where Starhopper has one Raptor rocket engine, a full-scale Starship headed for deep space may use more than 40, according to Musk.
Musk tweeted last week that Starhopper was supposed to lift off, hover, traverse sideways, and then land during this test. If successful, it would represent the most ambitious test yet for the vehicle: Its first short launches in April occurred while Starhopper was chained to its launchpad.
However, the launch attempt did not play out quite as SpaceX hoped it might on Wednesday evening – a moment captured during live YouTube broadcasts by both the company and local residents.
‘As you can see there, the vehicle did not lift off’
The video above, taken from an aerial recording by SpaceX, shows about 20 seconds of Starhopper’s launch attempt.
The rocket ship ignited its single engine just after 8:32 p.m. ET, blowing out a cloud of rocket exhaust, steam, and dirt. But two or three seconds later, SpaceX engineers or automated systems shut down the engine and terminated the flight.
“It appears as though we have had an abort on today’s test,” Kate Tice, a certification engineer at SpaceX, said during the broadcast. “As you can see there, the vehicle did not lift off.”
Seconds after the engine shut down, a vent on top of the vehicle flared up and began shooting flames. The flames did not appear to cause any visible damage and quickly died out.
The aborted launch follows a successful test-firing last week, though that test apparently disconnected a fuel line, spilled liquid methane on the launchpad, and triggered an enormous flare-up.
Tice reminded viewers during Wednesday’s launch attempt that Starhopper is part of an ongoing development program and not an operational rocket system.
“Today was a test flight designed to test the boundaries of the vehicle,” Tice said.
A SpaceX representative previously told Business Insider in an email that the hop-and-hover test was “one in a series of tests designed to push the limits of the vehicle as quickly as possible to learn all we can, as fast as we safely can.”
Several hours after the launch attempt, Musk revealed the cause of its abort, tweeting early Thursday: “Pc (chamber pressure) high due to colder than expected propellant.”
In other words, with liquid methane (the fuel) and liquid oxygen (to burn the fuel) coming into the Raptor engine at too chilly a temperature, the engine wasn’t behaving normally enough to ensure a smooth test.
When SpaceX may try again to launch Starhopper
SpaceX has from 3 p.m. to midnight ET on Thursday to pull off another launch attempt this week, according to local road-closure notices.
If the activities and timeline of Wednesday’s attempt are any indication, however, the company will likely try again to fly Starhopper after trying to launch a different rocket for NASA: one with an uncrewed spaceship that’s sending about 5,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station.
Called Commercial Resupply Services-18 (CRS-18), the rocket was supposed to lift off on Wednesday, too, though 1,000 miles away in Florida. Since poor weather conditions foiled that launch attempt, SpaceX will try again to launch that mission just seconds before 6:02 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Tracking antennas for the CRS-18 mission are located in Boca Chica, Texas, where Starhopper is located. This may force SpaceX to focus on its flight for NASA until enough resources are freed up in Boca Chica to focus on the planned test flight there.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published at 10:35 p.m. ET on July 24, 2019.