First untethered hop test of SpaceX Starhopper aborted after spacecraft refuses to 'hop'

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

For the second time in a week, SpaceX fired up the engine of its Starhopper spacecraft for its biggest 'hop' test yet on 24 July — a 20-metre, untethered hop. The test was aborted at T-0 in the second Starhopper-related incident SpaceX has had to deal with in a week. Clearly, the planned Earth-to-Mars shuttle doesn't appear ready to take its first hop just yet.

Starhopper is a prototype spacecraft under SpaceX's Starship program. Its Raptor engine was fired up for about 3 seconds at the SpaceX test site in Boca Chica, Texas. As the seconds ticked away to test-launch time, the spacecraft simply refused to lift off. Instead of making the 65-f00t (20-metre) hop it was expected to, the rocket simply spat flames and smoke before shutting down.

"It appears as though we have had an abort on today's test," Kate Tice, SpaceX certification engineer, said during a webcast of the Starhopper test. "As you can see there, the vehicle did not lift off today."

The spacecraft passed its first official "hop test" in April 2019 where the rocket was fire up and propelled from the launch pad while sturdy tethers kept it from going too far. The test was a success and Starhopper "hit tether limits", demonstrating that its engine performed normally at 80 percent of its full capacity, as Musk pointed out in a tweet.

Once fully-developed, Starship will be launched atop a SpaceX rocket called the Super Heavy, which sports 31 Raptor engines in total. Musk has said that both Starship and the Super Heavy are fully and rapidly reusable.

The real problem for SpaceX after the two recent incidents with the Starship is sticking to its planned timeline, with a human test mission planned for 2023. The test flight could carry Japanese entrepreneur and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his troupe of artists to the moon and back.

Musk didn't seem to think the first incident — in which Starhopper went up in flames — left a mark on the spacecraft itself.

Here's hoping that third time's the charm for rocket developmental tests, too!

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