SpaceX’s massive Starship prototype lifts off

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A prototype of SpaceX’s Mars rocket roared to life Thursday night, lifting the vehicle into the air for a landmark test.

It was the first time the experimental craft, nicknamed “Starhopper,” flew free without being tethered to the ground.

SpaceX’s goal was to lift the spacecraft about 65 feet into the air before gently landing it nearby — what’s SpaceX called a “hop test.” It’s not clear exactly how high the craft flew. Footage captured by reporters present at the South Texas launch site show fire and smoke erupting from Starhopper’s massive Raptor rocket engine, obscuring the vehicle from view.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the flight was a success.

“Water towers *can* fly,” he joked in a tweet, referencing Starhopper’s likeness to a cylindrical water tank. He also shared views of the launch that were captured by a nearby drone and a camera near the Raptor engine.

Musk tweeted that SpaceX will next attempt a 200 meter, or 650 foot, hop test “in a week or two.”

Starhopper’s successful run came one day after a hop attempt was aborted three seconds after the Raptor engine fired up. The craft never left the ground, and stray flames appeared to shoot out from the top of the vehicle, but no serious damage was done. Musk said the hop test was called off because the fuel was “colder than expected,” causing an issue with pressure levels inside the vehicle.

Starhopper is designed to be an early precursor to a deep-space exploration rocket called Starship, and Musk has said rapid development of the technology is a top priority for SpaceX.

The latest design for Starship, which was earlier referred to as BFR, show it riding into orbit atop the most powerful rocket booster ever built. SpaceX hopes to use the launch system to deliver massive loads of satellites into orbit, and eventually to shuttle humans out into the solar system to explore and colonize Mars.

Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese billionaire who landed a deal with SpaceX to one day use a Starship spacecraft to circle the moon, tweeted praised to Musk.

“Congrats!!! Moon is right there!” he wrote.

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