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Elon Musk unveils 'holy grail of space' new Mars rocket prototype expected to take flight in months

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has unveiled the latest iteration of his space company's newly assembled Starship, expanding a fast-paced development timeline for SpaceX's centripetal vehicle to launch humans into the moon and Mars.

Musk showed a crowd of space enthusiasts and reporters at SpaceX's rocket development site late Saturday in the remote village of Boca Chica, Texas, with Starship animations landing on the moon and Mars and predicting that rocket's first orbital flight could come in the next six months, followed by missions to space with humans aboard the following year.

"This is basically the holy grail of space," Musk said, standing between a towering, newly assembled Starship rocket and Falcon 1 – the company's first vehicle whose debut orbital mission was celebrated by SpaceX 11 years ago.

"The critical breakthrough needed for us to become a space-faring civilization is to make space travel like air travel," said Musk, who is also chief executive of electric carmaker Tesla Inc.

Starship, a shiny steel rocketship designed to carry dozens of humans to the moon and Mars, is the top half of Musk's colossal interplanetary rocket system that stands 387 feet tall (118 meters) as the latest addition to SpaceX's reusable launch vehicles. Musk named Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa as Starship's first private passenger in 2018.

The Boca Chica village, a few miles north of the Mexican border, is ground zero for SpaceX's three-year experimental test program for Starship, whose rocket engine tests have rattled residents' nerves living in a remote hamlet of roughly two dozen homes a mile. away.

"I think the actual danger to the Boca Chica village is low but not small," Musk said during a question and answer session. "So probably over time it would be better to buy out the villages, and we made an offer to that effect."

Some residents have rejected SpaceX's non-negotiable offer to buy their homes for three times the market value.

A three-legged prototype of a rocket named Starhopper has launched a test launch in the village twice since July, most recently flying as high as 500 feet (152 meters) and landing on an adjacent concrete slab to trial Musk's next generation dubbed Raptor rocket engine.

Musk's mission to align with NASA's goal of sending humans there by 2024 under its Artemis program, an accelerated deep-space initiative launched by the Trump administration in March that aims to work with a handful of US troops. space companies building a long-term presence on the lunar surface before eventually colonizing Mars.

The space agency has tapped SpaceX to figure out how to land vehicles on the lunar surface and help develop a system for refueling rockets – like Starship – in space, an "important technology to aid sustained exploration efforts on the Moon and Mars," NASA said in a release on Friday.

NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing Co. a total of US $ 6.8 billion to build competing rocket and capsule systems to launch astronauts into orbit from American soil for the first time since 2011. Development of both astronaut capsules has been beset by delays and testing mishaps.

“I'm looking forward to the SpaceX announcement tomorrow. In the meantime, the Commercial Crew is years behind schedule, ”NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a Friday night statement. “NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on American taxpayer investments. Time to deliver. "

© Thomson Reuters 2019

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