It may look like something straight out of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or Tintin’s Destination Moon but, according to Elon Musk, the pictures he tweeted of his latest SpaceX creation are very much real.
Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and electric car-maker Tesla, revealed that assembly of the ‘Starship Hopper’ test-flight rocket was complete and that the pictures of the shimmering, stainless steel construction were ‘not a rendering’.
The Tintin comparison is not an accident. In September of last year, SpaceX revealed the new design of the ‘Big Falcon Rocket’, now simply know as ‘Starship’, saying “I love the Tintin rocket design, so I kind of wanted to bias it towards that.”
“If in doubt,” Musk added. “Go with Tintin.”
True to his word, the 120-foot-tall hopper is a tubular, pointy-topped rocket with three rear ‘fins’ that serve as landing pads. It is an important building block of the controversial entrepreneur’s grand plan to land on and eventually colonise Mars, but this version of the Starship Hopper is not yet ready for space flight.
“This is for suborbital VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) tests,” Musk tweeted. “Orbital version is taller, has thicker skins (won’t wrinkle) & a smoothly curving nose section.”
Elon Musk tweeted a picture of the stainless steel, pointy topped rocket saying it was not a rendering
The suborbital tests will be similar to SpaceX’s Grasshopper program, in which the Starship hopper will take off and look to hover 5km above the ground before being brought back down to land.
The ‘Raptor’ engines of the hopper are expected to be test-fired next month, while Musk is hoping for its first test-flights in March or April.
SpaceX will be hoping the tests will be more successful than its last launch in December, in which a technical glitch saw it botch a ground landing for the first time. Its payload of Christmas dinner for the crew of the International Space Station still successfully made it into orbit, however.
The refuellable, three-part Starship Hopper was assembled at a SpaceX factory near the Boca Chica village in south Texas. Musk has been tweeting excitedly about the construction of the hopper since before Christmas, telling his followers that the rocket is constructed from stainless steel. Musk said that the material is better at both extremely hot and cold temperatures than carbon fiber and will need less shielding.
The science-fiction silver is more than just for show, according to Musk, as the exterior will get too hot for paint. As a result, the stainless mirror finish will ‘look like liquid silver’.
Work at the Boca Chica location seemed to accelerate with Musk’s presence, with pictures showing engineers working overnight to complete construction on the hopper.
The completed rocket was also caught on camera by Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo, a rocket and astronomy enthusiast, whose video of the Starship Hopper was retweeted by Musk.