SpaceX appears to have taken a significant step forward with the development of a key component of its Mars mission architecture. According to multiple reports, during the Small Satellite Conference Tuesday in Logan, Utah, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company has shipped a Raptor engine to its test site in MacGregor, Texas. A spokesman confirmed to Ars that the engine has indeed been moved to Texas for developmental tests.
The Raptor is SpaceX’s next generation of rocket engine. It may be as much as three times more powerful than the Merlin engines that power its Falcon 9 rocket and will also be used in the Falcon Heavy rocket that may fly in late 2016 or early 2017. The Raptor will power SpaceX’s next generation of rocket after the Falcon Heavy, the so-called Mars Colonial Transporter.
Although official details regarding the Raptor engine remain scarce, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has suggested the engine will have a thrust of about 500,000 pounds, roughly the same power as a space shuttle’s main engines. Whereas the shuttle was powered by three main engines and two booster rockets, however, it is believed the large rocket SpaceX uses to colonize Mars would likely be powered by a cluster of nine Raptor engines.
Musk has repeatedly suggested that he founded SpaceX to start a human colony on Mars, beginning with crewed missions in the 2020s. However, this year the company has begun to show some tangible progress toward that goal. In April, the company announced plans to launch an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018, and it has demonstrated supersonic retropropulsion technology needed to land there. Additionally, Musk has said he will unveil more details about how SpaceX will colonize Mars at this year’s International Astronautical Conference, which will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico September 26 to 30.
While the company has been mum on details so far, the fact that SpaceX is developing hardware such as the Raptor engine for a Mars mission architecture lends further validity to Musk’s claims. Aerospace engineers often say the bedrock of any spaceflight development program is the rocket engines, which typically take five to seven years to develop under optimistic timelines. Full-scale engine testing—if that is indeed what this represents—typically comes toward the end of that cycle.