SpaceX has test-fired the flight version of its new Raptor rocket engine for the first time. Thus, taking another step toward Mars.
SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk announced the test in a series of tweets yesterday (Feb. 3).
“First firing of Starship Raptor flight engine! So proud of great work by @SpaceX team!!” Musk said via Twitter.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2019
Mr. Musk has been at SpaceX’s test site for its rocket engines in central Texas this weekend. The facility near McGregor is where the company both tests Merlin engines for Falcon 9 flights and also performs some experimental firings.
SpaceX has been working on the Raptor engine for several years and conducted the first test of a developmental version of the engine in September 2016.
Due to a variety of reasons including financial pressures, SpaceX is pushing hard on the development of its next-generation Super Heavy rocket and Starship spacecraft.
Starship is the 100-passenger stainless-steel vehicle SpaceX is building to take people and cargo to Mars and other distant destinations. Starship will launch atop a giant rocket SpaceX calls Super Heavy.
Both of these vehicles will be reusable and Raptor-powered. Starship will sport seven of the new engines, and Super Heavy will use 31 Raptors to get off the ground.
A “hopper” prototype that SpaceX will use to test the Starship design on short flights within Earth’s atmosphere will have three Raptor engines. This hopper will debut soon, Musk has said — perhaps within the next month or so if everything goes according to plan.
The first launches of the full-scale Starship-Super Heavy duo could follow in relatively short order. SpaceX is targeting 2023 for a passenger-toting mission around the moon and the mid-2020s for its first Mars flights, Musk has said.
One of the most important things that rocket scientists will study during these early test firings is the color of the flame. In this case, the rocket engine’s exhaust turns green toward the end of the test firing. This was likely due to a slight burning of copper liner from the engine chamber. This should not have burned, and fixing this will likely require adding more insulation.
However, once testing in McGregor is complete, the Raptor will be shipped to the South Texas site to be installed on the Starship hopper test article there, with two other engines expected to follow. Musk said in early January that test flights there could begin in four weeks, “which probably means 8 weeks, due to unforeseen issues.”
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Thumbnail image: The first test firing of a flight version of SpaceX’s Raptor rocket engine. Credit: SpaceX