Elon Musk's SpaceX might launch 'Test Hopper' - a prototype for a giant Mars rocket ship - for the first time this week
- SpaceX has built a stainless-steel rocket ship at its launch site near Boca Chica Beach, located at the southern tip of Texas.
- "Test Hopper" is the first, though only partly-functional, prototype of Starship: a launch system that SpaceX founder Elon Musk hopes to use to send people to Mars.
- A sheriff hand-delivered road closure notices to residents on Friday, according to a source that lives near Boca Chica Beach. The document warned locals that SpaceX will "conduct testing" as soon as Monday, March 18.
- SpaceX previously said its Test Hopper "will be tethered during initial testing" and that any of its "hops" - short vertical take-offs and landings - won't be visible "from offsite."
- One resident reported not receiving the notice. The person also claims that SpaceX promised a schedule for launch activities but has yet to provide one.
SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk and headed by Gwynne Shotwell, is about to test-launch its first prototype of rocket ship designed to send people to Mars, according to a document reviewed by Business Insider.
SpaceX may begin firing up its "Test Hopper" prototype as soon as Monday, according to a notice stuffed into the mailboxes of some residents near Boca Chica Beach, which is at the southernmost tip of Texas.
SpaceX started building out its launch site in Boca Chica in 2014 for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. However, Musk said in early 2018 that Boca Chica "will be dedicated to" the new Mars vehicle, called Starship.
On March 8, SpaceX crawled the lower section of its mirror-polished Test Hopper out to a launch pad at Boca Chica. Shortly afterward, engineers attached a single truck-sized Raptor rocket engine - the newest and most powerful such machine SpaceX has ever developed - to the base of the vehicle.
Test Hopper can't launch into space, but it will trial crucial hardware and ideas that SpaceX needs to create a full-scale Starship (formerly called Big Falcon Rocket).roughly 400 feet tall, be fully reusable, and use a "bleeding" atmospheric reentry system. And if Musk's "aspirational" dreams for the system come true, Starship may reach orbit in 2020, send its first crew around the moon in 2023, and launch the first people toward Mars in 2024. Ultimately, it might ferry up to 100 people and 150 tons of cargo at a time to the red planet.
But first, SpaceX needs to prove the basic concepts behind Starship work with its Test Hopper.
Comments from a company representative, as well as the notice reportedly handed to some Boca Chica residents, suggest that SpaceX will attempt Test Hopper's first integrated rocket-engine firing as soon as Monday, followed by tethered "hop" test launches shortly thereafter.
Why crucial 'Test Hopper' launches are imminent
Test Hopper can't fly into orbit around Earth. It's a relatively crude and squat machine, with its lower section standing roughly 60 feet tall. The rocket ship is designed to fly on short "hops" that go no more than about 16,400 feet in the air, according to a Federal Communications Commission application.
In January, Musk said his company would build a taller, orbit-capable version "around June" and that the rocket ship would have "thicker skins (won't wrinkle) & a smoothly curving nose section." That timeline is now uncertain, however, since gale-force Texas winds blew over and damaged the Test Hopper's nosecone in February. Musk said the day of the incident that it'd take weeks to repair the nosecone.
Nosecone or not, SpaceX is moving forward with the earliest test firings of its Test Hopper at a beachside launch pad.
"SpaceX will conduct checkouts of the newly installed ground systems and perform a short static fire test in the days ahead," a SpaceX representative told Business Insider in an email last week.
A "static fire" ignites a rocket engine to ensure it works, but the vehicle that it's on - in this case the Test Hopper - is held down to not lift off the ground. Such tests help engineers find and troubleshoot any issues before attempting a launch in earnest.
"Although the prototype is designed to perform sub-orbital flights, or hops, powered by the SpaceX Raptor engine, the vehicle will be tethered during initial testing and hops will not be visible from offsite," the company representative added. "SpaceX will establish a safety zone perimeter in coordination with local enforcement and signage will be in place to alert the community prior to the testing."
A local sheriff delivered a paper warning about the tests to residents before the weekend, according to a person familiar with the situation.
That notice, which Business Insider obtained a photograph of, said the following:
"NOTICE TO BOCA CHICA VILLAGE RESIDENTS"
"SpaceX is planning to conduct testing as soon as the week of March 18, 2019 at the company's site located near Boca Chica Beach, Cameron County, Texas. During those tests, SpaceX will establish a safety zone perimeter in coordination with local law enforcement. Signage will be in place prior to testing to alert the community of any temporary closures of Highway 4 and Boca Chica Beach.
"Boca Chica Village residents will have access to their homes during testing."
The printed notice also included a labeled Google Map, reproduced below, and the following text to accompany it:
"[T]wo temporary checkpoints will be established on Highway 4. Individuals who provide proof of residence between the two checkpoints will be allowed to proceed through the soft checkpoint. Access beyond the hard checkpoint will not be permitted during temporary closures."
Google Maps; Business Insider
'We deserve that courtesy'
The hard checkpoint is located about 1.5 miles west of SpaceX's launch pad, as are the easternmost homes in Boca Chica Village.
By comparison, Kennedy Space Center in Florida permits visitors to witness launch activity no closer than 3 miles away from its most famous launch pad.
One resident of the Boca Chica Village community, who asked not to be named, told Business Insider that the sheriff never delivered a notice to their home. The resident also said that a SpaceX representative previously committed to providing schedules for launches but has yet to do so. "We deserve that courtesy" from SpaceX, the resident said, given the launch site's extremely close proximity to homes.
Even Cameron County's judge, Eddie Treviño, appeared not to know the nature or timing of SpaceX's testing plans when he approved the road closures on Thursday.
"It's exciting and we know that we keep moving closer and closer to that first test, or whatever they're going to be doing," Treviño said, according to The Brownsville Herald. "We're wishing them all the best of luck and we're excited."
SpaceX did not immediately questions from Business Insider pertaining to the safety perimeter's size and potential risks posed to residents by Test Hopper static fires and hops. The company filed required environmental impact statements in May 2014, which discussed launch risks and safety precautions, but those documents do not describe a test program akin to Test Hopper, nor launches of extremely large Mars-capable vehicles.
But for his part, Musk has at least teased the possibility for years.
"It could very well be that the first person that departs for another planet will depart from this location," he said during a groundbreaking ceremony in September 2014.
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