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For its next act, SpaceX plans to launch and land its giant Mars spaceship

An illustration of the "hopper" test-flight version of SpaceX's Starship, shared on Twitter by Elon Musk. (Elon Musk)

SpaceX’s long-stated plans to reach the Red Planet could take a big step forward as early as February with a so-called “hopper test” of the company’s Mars spaceship prototype.

During next month’s test, the prototype will launch and briefly go up in the air before coming back down to Earth, Chief Executive Elon Musk revealed last week. But in line with typical Musk timelines, he gave himself a buffer, tweeting Saturday that four weeks “probably means eight weeks, due to unforeseen issues.”

Formerly known as BFR, the test spaceship is being assembled in South Texas, about 23 miles east of Brownsville. The vehicle is now called Starship and is intended to launch on top of a massive rocket booster called Super Heavy.

Starship’s planned hopper test is similar to those SpaceX conducted from 2012 to 2014 with its Grasshopper and F9R test rockets, precursors to its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.

The 10-story Grasshopper rocket, which was basically a Falcon 9 first-stage booster with one engine and landing legs, completed eight test flights and landings at the company’s McGregor, Texas, facility. After Grasshopper, the Hawthorne company tested the F9R test vehicle, which had three engines and went as high as 3,200 feet in the air before landing back on Earth.

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SpaceX has so far successfully landed its first-stage Falcon 9 booster 32 times, either at sea or on the ground.

In the last few weeks, Musk has relied on his favorite medium to release more details about Starship’s development. In late December, Musk tweeted Starship would have a “stainless mirror finish” because the spaceship’s skin would “get too hot for paint.” Later that day, he said the spaceship would “look like liquid silver” because a side would be cooled with cryogenic liquid methane.

Then on Saturday, Musk tweeted an illustration of a bullet-shaped stainless-steel spaceship, saying the Starship test vehicle would look similar when finished, though it would “obv[iously] have windows.”

Starship is intended to carry as many as 100 passengers to the moon and Mars. In September, the company announced that Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa would be the first paying customer to travel around the moon on the vehicle. Maezawa has said his flight would occur in 2023.

Musk said the first hopper engine to be fired is “almost finished assembly in California” and predicted it would “probably” have a test fire next month. The engines currently on the prototype are a mix of operational parts and “Raptor development” — the liquid methane-fueled rocket engine that will power the vehicle.

The company plans to build the Super Heavy booster and Starship spaceship at a 19-acre site at the Port of Los Angeles.

Starship development is not the only project SpaceX has on its plate this year. This summer, the company is set to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in its Crew Dragon capsule, which would mark the first time NASA astronauts have taken off from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

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© 2019 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.