It looks like SpaceX is trying to do the 15km hop test before Christmas! After two successful jumps of 150 m with the prototypes SN5 and SN6, the engineers of the SpaceX launch facility Boca Chica in South Texas introduced the SN8 – the first Starship prototype with three Raptor engines. Before the SN8 could perform a test flight at high altitude, the engineers had to perform a static fire test.
This test is critical to ensure that the spaceship's interior fittings can handle its cryogenic propellants. It is the last milestone before the spaceship can fly high. On the evening of October 20th, they did just that! At 3:13 a.m. local time (1:13 a.m. PDT; 4:13 a.m. EDT), the SN8 ignited its three Raptor engines and fired them for several seconds.
Although SpaceX has not yet released an explanation of the test, footage captured by Mary McConnaughey (aka @BocaChicaGal) near the launch site suggests it was a success. The video of the event (see below) shows the engine igniting after a few minutes of venting at 2h27m12s and remaining lit for a few seconds.
With this milestone, the company appears ready to conduct the historic 15 km hop test. At this point, this should be done before the end of October or the beginning of November. While the SN8 received its three Raptor engines and was preparing to test them out, another team was busy assembling the nose cone in a different part of the facility.
A Starship prototype with a nose cone has not been delivered since the Starhopper test vehicle was in active service. However, this segment was removed shortly after the Starhopper overturned in high winds in January 2019. What was left, the single-engine lower section, performed a tethered hop test followed by an initial free-flight hop test to 20 meters (~ 65 ft).
In August 2019, these tests culminated in a 150-meter hop test, which could only be carried out again a year later with the prototypes SN5 and SN7. Since then, the development of the SN8 has made rapid progress. The core underwent a series of proof tests (October 6-8) to validate its stainless steel fuel tanks in preparation for its static fire test.
What followed was the addition of the large maneuvering flaps to the core section and the nose cone. The nasal cone was then attached to the SN8 fuselage by crane on Thursday (October 22), an event watched by multiple observers who took pictures and footage. Above is a time-lapse video of the @LabPadre recorded batching process, created using the 24-hour live coverage of the Boca Chica launch system.
With the nose cone and flaps installed, the vehicle now looks like the final Starship design for the first time. With its three motors, nose cone and built-in maneuvering flaps, the SN8 is ready to attempt its 15km hop test which includes a "belly flop" maneuver that tests its ability to slide back and landing site with just its maneuvering surfaces.
According to earlier statements by Musk, SpaceX is hoping to conduct a suborbital hop test at an altitude of 200 km sometime next year. For this final test, the spaceship will be equipped with six Raptor engines – three optimized thrust at sea level and three optimized for the vacuum of space. The company is also working on the Super Heavy element of the launch system, which will have no fewer than 28 Raptor engines.
Further reading: ArsTechnica