The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has published Notices-to-Airmen (NOTAMs) for SpaceX’s next Starhopper flight milestone, a 200m (650 ft) hop now scheduled no earlier than Friday, August 16th.
During this upcoming test, the unusual Starship testbed and prototype will likely spend at least 30-60 seconds in the air, propelled by a lone Raptor engine producing up to ~200 tons (440,000 lbf) of thrust. Starhopper will then attempt to land a hundred or so feet east of its spartan launch mount on a dedicated landing pad. If successfully completed, CEO Elon Musk believes that either or both of SpaceX’s Mk1 and Mk2 Starship prototypes will be ready to begin their own series of more ambitious flight tests as early as September or October.
On July 25th, Starhopper lifted off – untethered – for the first time ever on its second try, following a scrubbed July 24th launch attempt and an otherwise successful July 16th static fire test that engulfed Starhopper in an impressive fireball.
Aside from starting a minor brush fire that burned a few acres surrounding the Boca Chica launch facilities, Starhopper’s untethered flight debut was by all appearances an unqualified success. SpaceX’s sixth full-scale Raptor (SN06) performed nominally over the ~20-second flight and Starhopper was quickly returned to its launch pad just a few days later, at which point technicians began working to reattach the rocket’s quick-disconnect (QD) umbilicals.
A bit more than a week after that, SpaceX performed several hours of tests with Starhopper on August 9th, culminating in an apparent wet dress rehearsal (WDR) in which the low-fidelity Starship prototype was loaded with liquid oxygen and methane propellant, a helium pressurant, and nitrogen for its maneuvering thrusters. Following Starhopper’s inaugural flight, the seemingly successful WDR served as a critical verification that the vehicle remains a structurally sound and functional pressure vessel and tested all the systems it will need for its next flight trial.
On the same day, CEO Elon Musk confirmed that SpaceX was effectively waiting – hardware ready – for the FAA to approve Starhopper’s 200m flight plan and/or arrange an updated experimental permit for the suborbital launch vehicle. Starhopper’s current FAA permit allows for unlimited flight tests but limits the altitude of those tests to 25m (80 ft) above ground level (AGL).
By all appearances, the fact that the FAA has published NOTAMs from August 16th through 19th for Starhopper’s 200m flight arguably indicates that the regulatory agency has also permitted SpaceX to fly the experimental vehicle. On the other hand, no such updated vehicle or flight permit has been published on the FAA’s website and US bureaucratic institutions are not exactly known for rational and logical processes. Just three days away from the opening of the window, it looks like we’ll find out in the next few days if SpaceX has everything it needs to attempt Starhopper’s next major flight test.
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