The latest prototype of Elon Musk’s planned Mars rocket has been coming together at the SpaceX development facility in Boca Chica, Texas. SN8 looks more like an actual rocket than previous iterations, and it could be the first to make an actual high altitude flight, though Musk has been quick to lower expectations.
Previous versions have managed a few short “hops” of nearly 500 feet (150 meters) in altitude before making controlled landings not far from where they lifted off. Now Musk hopes to fly SN8 to over 9 miles (15 kilometers) high, but he also isn’t guaranteeing it’ll make it far off the launchpad.
“A RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly, AKA an explosion) right off launchpad is also possible. Fortunately, SN9 is almost ready,” Musk said in a tweet Saturday.
Some previous prototypes have burst during tests on the ground, but so far the handful of attempted short flights done over the past two years have all been rousing successes. Most recently,that mirrored the fight of SN5 in August, itself almost a year after the smaller “Starhopper” did the same thing.
But again, Musk is by no means confident SN8 will stick its first landing attempt.
“If it fails right at the end, some landing pad repair will be needed to fill in the crater,” the SpaceX founder tweeted.
If SN8 is destroyed during its flight attempt, however, that won’t necessarily be considered a failure. Whatever data is gathered from whatever happens will be used to iterate on later versions, and there’s likely to be many more versions before a Starship that finally makes it to orbit, let alone Mars. Musk has said minor alterations will be made to each new prototype up through at least SN20.
It’s not clear when SN8 will attempt its first flight and landing. Though what looks like a fully formed Starship has taken shape at Boca Chica, more tests are still required on the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace closure for the region around the test facility, which is valid for the rest of the year, but this applies only from the surface up to 1,800 feet (549 meters) and therefore is meant as a safety precaution for ground tests, not for the actual test flight itself.
Whenever the next big flight attempt does come, Musk has promised to stream the whole thing, “warts & all.”
“You will see every frame that we do,” Musk says.