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SpaceX Test-Launches Early Prototype of Company’s Mars Rocket Rattling Nerves of People Living Near Texas Site

The prototype, dubbed Starhopper, slowly rose about 500 feet(152m) off its launch pad in Brownsville, Texas

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SpaceX, Mars, Rocket
SpaceX's Mars Starship prototype "Starhopper" hovers over its launchpad during a test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, Aug. 27, 2019. VOA

SpaceX test-launched an early prototype of the company’s Mars rocket on Tuesday, rattling the nerves of people living near the Texas site and clearing another key hurdle in billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s interplanetary ambitions.

The prototype, dubbed Starhopper, slowly rose about 500 feet(152m) off its launch pad in Brownsville, Texas, and propelled itself some 650 feet (198m) eastward onto an adjacent landing platform, completing a seemingly successful low-altitude test of SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engine.

The Raptor is designed to power Musk’s forthcoming heavy-lift Starship rocket, a reusable two-stage booster taller than the Statue of Liberty that is expected to play a central role in Musk’s interplanetary space travel objectives, including missions to Mars.

The prototype “hopper” vehicle, resembling a chrome water tower with four landing legs, was originally slated for its test liftoff on Monday. But a “rather embarrassing” wiring issue with the single Raptor engine halted the countdown less than a second before ignition, Musk, the SpaceX founder and chief executive, said on Twitter.

SpaceX, Mars, Rocket
SpaceX test-launched an early prototype of the company’s Mars rocket on Tuesday, rattling the nerves of people living near the Texas site and clearing another key hurdle. Pixabay

About a dozen people living in the adjacent village of Boca Chica, just over a mile from the test site, had been urged in advance by local authorities to vacate their homes as a precaution at the sound of police sirens that blared minutes before launch.

“It almost looked like a cartoon or something,” nearby resident Cheryl Stevens told Reuters just after Starhopper’s flight. “After all the buildup, it was kind of nice to actually see it happen.”

The notices, circulated by sheriff’s deputies three days in advance, warned of a possible “overpressure event” that could shatter windows and endanger anyone remaining inside their homes in the event of an explosive malfunction.

Maria Pointer, another resident, set up cameras and invited photographers to her home. She said excitement surrounding the launch reminded her of “feeling like you’re going on a Ferris wheel.”

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Other residents bemoaned SpaceX’s presence on the Texas coast, frustrated with road closures and confusing public notices worrisome to those unaccustomed to the trials of spaceflight experimentation.

“It’s kind of like a double-edged sword,” said resident Terry Heaton, adding that access to the nearby beach was blocked off every time SpaceX attempted an engine test.

The next step for Raptor will be to carry out additional ground-based firings of the engine bolted to a stationary test stand, Musk said. (VOA)

Next Story

SpaceX Launches 60 Mini Satellites for Cheaper Global Internet

The Falcon rocket blasted into the morning sky, marking the unprecedented fourth flight of a booster for SpaceX

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SpaceX, Satellites, Global
FILE - A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket, with a payload of 60 satellites for SpaceX's Starlink broadband network, lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 23, 2019. VOA

SpaceX launched 60 mini satellites Monday, the second batch of an orbiting network meant to provide global internet coverage.

The Falcon rocket blasted into the morning sky, marking the unprecedented fourth flight of a booster for SpaceX. The compact flat-panel satellites – just 575 pounds (260 kilograms) each – will join 60 launched in May.

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk wants to put thousands of these Starlink satellites in orbit, to offer high-speed internet service everywhere. He plans to start service next year in the northern U.S. and Canada, with global coverage for populated areas after 24 launches.

Last month, Musk used an orbiting Starlink satellite to send a tweet: “Whoa, it worked!!”

SpaceX, Satellites, Global
SpaceX employees work on the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will astronauts to and from the International Space Station, from American soil, as part of the agency’s commercial crew Program, in Hawthorne, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. VOA

Employees gathered at company bases on both coasts cheered when the first-stage booster landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic.

“These boosters are designed to be used 10 times. Let’s turn it around for a fifth, guys,” company’s launch commentator said.

This also marked the first time SpaceX used a previously flown nose cone. The California-based company reuses rocket parts to cut costs.

Stacked flat inside the top of the rocket, the newest satellites were going to maneuver even higher following liftoff, using krypton-powered thrusters. SpaceX said there was a potential problem with one of the 60 that could prevent it from moving beyond its initial 174 mile-high (280 kilometer-high) orbit. In that case, the faulty satellite will be commanded to re-enter and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere.

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Each satellite has an autonomous system for dodging space junk. In September, however, the European Space Agency had to move one of its satellites out of the way of a Starlink satellite. SpaceX later said it corrected the problem.

SpaceX is among several companies interested in providing broadband internet coverage worldwide, especially in areas where it costs too much or is unreliable. Others include OneWeb and Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.

According to Musk, Starlink revenue can help SpaceX develop rockets and spacecraft for traveling to Mars, his overriding ambition. (VOA)