SpaceX's Starhopper goes up in flames in second static fire test of its Raptor engines

The real problem for SpaceX, as far as the Starhopper is concerned, is sticking to its timeline.

A demonstration prototype of SpaceX's Starhopper spacecraft went up in flames during an engine test in the agency's Boca Chica, Texas facility. Four minutes into the vehicle's engine igniting, a second €" albeit, tinier €" explosion engulfed the spacecraft in flames for several seconds. It appeared to be an accident. Though the fire was quickly put out, the accident could set the spacecraft's first flight back by a few more weeks or months.

The big shiny spacecraft is the company's rocket-in-development to take people and cargo into deep space someday. While it may look to some like a toy, the rocket this week was to do an untethered hovering flight at ~20 meters from the surface €" a test known as a 'test firing' of the engines.

During the untethered flight test, the engines ignite, lifting the Starhopper up to an altitude high above the Earth. It is to hover there for a certain amount of time before using its engine to return to the surface and land.

The hop test is nothing like a normal launch since the spacecraft isn't nearly ready to go into space. But for SpaceX, Starhopper passing the hop test means the rocket's engines and other vital systems are responding well to stresses in the real world. It's no trip to Mars, but this success is still a pretty big deal for the Starhopper. The previous such test of the Starhopper €" test firing of the engines during a short, tethered flight €" was a success. Yet, the most recent 'untethered' test revealed that there might be an anomaly in the spacecraft's build.

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Components of the Starhopper caught fire after a fuel leak or dump, apart from which the static fire test last night was a success. That said, it remains unclear why the spacecraft burst into flames or whether it was damaged in any serious or superficial way. Starhopper is a smaller-scale version of the "Starship," currently in its early stages of development. The Starhopper is meant to test the spacecraft's build and features in a live-fire exercise, as well as perform short "hops". The Starhopper is currently being built and tested at a SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

Work on the Starhopper will continue as it is built, tweaked and groomed further for its test flight, which could carry Japanese entrepreneur and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his troupe of artists around the moon as early as 2023.

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