Starhopper flight
SpaceX's Starhopper prototype vehicle lifts off on its first free flight July 25 from South Texas. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX performed a first, brief flight of a prototype of its next-generation launch system July 25 as the company makes plans for more ambitious tests.

The prototype vehicle, named Starhopper, fired its single Raptor engine and lifted off its pad at SpaceX’s South Texas test facility near Brownsville, Texas, around 11:45 p.m. Eastern. Nighttime conditions, along with a large plume created by the engine, made it difficult to see the vehicle, but it appeared to rise several meters off the ground and remain airborne for 10 to 15 seconds before touching back down on the same pad.

Musk, in a tweet immediately after the flight, declared the flight “successful,” and later posted videos of the flight, including one from a drone. Neither he nor SpaceX released additional information about the flight, including details about the performance of the vehicle versus expectations.

SpaceX attempted the free flight one day earlier, but aborted it shortly after engine ignition and before the vehicle left the ground. Musk later tweeted that the chamber pressure in the Raptor engine was too high because the methane and liquid oxygen propellants flowing into it were colder than expected. SpaceX did webcast that earlier attempted test, but not the successful flight the next day.

Starhopper is an initial prototype of the company’s Starship next-generation reusable launch system. In addition to Starhopper, intended for low-altitude test flights, the company is building “Mark 1” prototypes of Starship both at its South Texas facility as well as in Cocoa, Florida. Those prototypes will start flying as soon as two to three months from now, Musk said July 19, with the potential for orbital test flights a few months after that.

Details about the development of Starship and its Super Heavy booster have come out in a piecemeal fashion in recent weeks, primarily in tweets by Musk, often responding to questions from others. Musk has stated he will provide some kind of update about Starship development once Starhopper starts flying, but hasn’t provided a specific date or the forum where he’ll provide that news.

Testing of Starhopper, meanwhile, will continue, with higher flights in the near future. “200m hop in a week or two,” Musk tweeted after this test.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...