Aerospace company SpaceX announced last Friday that it had sent its next-generation Mars rocket engine, called Raptor, to its testing site in McGregor, Texas for developmental tests. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell revealed the news during the Small Satellite Conference in Utah.
The Raptor engine will power Falcon Heavy’s successor; the rocket SpaceX is building for its Mars Colonial Transporter project. According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the Raptor is thrice as powerful as the Falcon Heavy engine and on par with NASA’s Space Shuttle engine, reportedly producing 500,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff.
Raptor to reduce spaceflight costs
Raptor is the first member of a family of cryogenic methane-fueled rocket engines under development by SpaceX. It is intended to power SpaceX’s super-heavy launch vehicles like the Falcon 9 Full Thrust and the Falcon Heavy.
“THE RAPTOR IS A HIGHLY REUSABLE METHANE STAGED-COMBUSTION ENGINE THAT WILL POWER THE NEXT GENERATION OF SPACEX LAUNCH VEHICLES DESIGNED FOR THE EXPLORATION AND COLONIZATION OF MARS,” SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin said in 2013 about the engine’s concept.
The Raptor engine will have three times the thrust of the Merlin 1D vacuum engine that has powered the retired Falcon 9, the current Falcon 9 Full Thrust and the upcoming Falcon Heavy.
Elon Musk assured the design would achieve reusability in all rocket stages, and it will mean a major cost reduction in spaceflight. Plus, the Raptor is expected to power spacecraft that are 100 times the size of an SUV and carry up to 100 tons of cargo.
The engine development from 2009 to 2015 was funded exclusively by SpaceX, without any participation from the US government. But in January 2016, the US Air Force (USAF) awarded a $33.6 million development contract to SpaceX to develop a prototype version of the Raptor, due in 2018.
Two days ago, the first full-scale Raptor, manufactured at the SpaceX Hawthorne facility in California, was shipped to the McGregor facility in Texas for development testing.
Space X’s grand scheme
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, was founded in 2002 by former PayPal entrepreneur and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk with the goal of creating technologies to reduce spaceflight costs and enable the colonization of Mars.
To achieve it, SpaceX has developed the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Full Thrust launch reusable vehicles, and the unmanned Dragon spacecraft. The Dragon 2 human-rated spacecraft, the Falcon Heavy rocket, another even bigger launch vehicle, and the Raptor rocket engine are currently in the works for the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) project.
As of 2016, SpaceX has scheduled the first MCT Mars flight launching in 2022, followed by the first MCT Mars flight with passengers in 2024. These launches, however, are pending on two research launches of Mars probes in 2018 and 2020 on the Dragon 2 and the Falcon Heavy.