SpaceX has made significant progress towards the next Starship launch, which will see a prototype of the rocket bound for Mars make its very first orbital flight.
The SN16 spacecraft is expected to launch later this month from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, before flying for about 90 minutes and landing off the coast of Hawaii.
The next major phase of testing for Starship will involve a 70-meter-high Super Heavy booster stage, capable of putting the 50-meter spacecraft into orbit.
In order to stack Starship SN16 on the booster, SpaceX is building a 122m launch tower, with the latest images from the launch site revealing that it is over 50% complete.
It is the largest structure SpaceX has ever built and will ultimately be the blueprint for the future “ocean space ports” that Elon Musk plans to build next year.
The SpaceX boss said last month that a network of offshore rigs would be built around the world to serve Starship, with two disused oil rigs already being converted at the port of Brownsville in Texas.
Only one of the high altitude flight tests conducted so far has ended without an explosion, with the Starship SN15 finally landing without incident in early May.
SpaceX has not released a rigid timeline for the next phase of Starship testing, but revealed in March that it plans to complete the first orbital test flight by July.
The first trade mission is already scheduled for 2023, involving a hover loop around the moon with paying passengers on board.
Mr Musk had previously expressed his hope that trips to Mars could take place as early as 2024 or 2026 – the two years being when Mars and Earth are closest – although the tech billionaire is known for his overly optimistic projections. .
A fully self-sustaining human colony on Mars is expected by 2050, with hundreds of spacecraft providing the cargo and people to populate it.
“We have to have a large permanently occupied base on the Moon, then build a city on Mars and become a space civilization,” Musk said in April.
“We don’t want to be one of those unique planetary species, we want to be a multiplanetary species.”
SpaceX has already secured a multibillion-dollar contract with NASA to facilitate the development of Starship for the US space agency’s Artemis mission to the Moon in 2024.