SpaceX launch of Starhopper started brush fires in south Texas

Late Thursday night, SpaceX launched an experimental rocket ship known as Starhopper into the air for the first time— but the launch produced more fiery excitement than anyone bargained for.

Starhopper is a test-bed for a much larger launch system called Starship, which the company is designing to send people to the moon and Mars. SpaceX is building and testing the vehicle near a small, remote beach community called Boca Chica at the southern tip of Texas.

Company founder Elon Musk hailed the test flight, which sent the rocket soaring to about 65 feet (20 meters), as a success early Friday morning. He also poked fun at the vehicle’s simplistic design.

“Starhopper flight successful. Water towers *can* fly haha!!” Musk tweeted. He later shared aerial drone footage of the flight, below.

However, flaming debris spread by Starhopper’s powerful rocket engine almost immediately started brush fires near the launch pad.

Emergency workers used a firetruck and other tools to control the flames over the next couple of hours. Despite their efforts, some of the fire spread into the nearby Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area.

“A brush fire occurred after our first successful Starship prototype hop. The SpaceX team is working with the Brownsville Fire Department to manage the incident, which is well under control,” a SpaceX spokesperson told Business Insider in an email on Friday morning. “As always, precautions were taken to ensure public safety, and nearby residents are well outside the pre-established safety zone perimeter.”

‘Still not extinguished’

Maria Pointer, who lives within 2 miles of SpaceX’s launch site, said she went to bed after the excitement of the launch, but woke up around 1 a.m. CT (2 a.m. ET) on Friday morning to the smell of fire. The fire department assured her the fire was contained in the marshlands, Pointer said.

“But I woke up at 3:00, and the hotspots had jumped out of the marshlands and into the Las Palomas,” she said, referring to a section of the wildlife refuge that runs between SpaceX’s launch site and Pointer’s property.

A map of the approximate locations of brush fires relative to Boca Chica Village and SpaceX’s launch site on July 26, 2019.
Google Maps; Business Insider

By late morning, firetrucks began to appear on the scene. A live broadcast of the area showed that the largest fires had burned or been extinguished by about 1:30 p.m. CT (2:30 p.m. ET).

The Brownsville Fire Department did not immediately return Business Insider’s requests for comment on the incident.

The fire has scorched about 100 acres and was “still not extinguished” as of late afternoon on Friday, according to Bryan Winton, manager of the Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuge at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). But Winton said emergency officials are “making sure it doesn’t harm any life or property.”

He also noted that, although the Las Palomas is full of bird species, the fire’s threat to wildlife is low.

“We’re beyond the nesting season, so it’s probably not going to hurt anything,” he said.

The reason the fire is still not contained is the area’s mucky ground conditions, Winton said; fire trucks can’t easily get close to the flames.

“With this soil type, you could be driving along and it’s fine, and next thing you know you’re sinking up to your axles,” Winton said. “There’s really not a way to deal with it, honestly, other than keep it from getting out of hand.”

Water-spraying backpacks and other such gear could help fire fighters in the “relatively inaccessible and unforgiving” area in the future, he added.

A change of plans

SpaceX’s earliest Mars rocket ship prototype, called Starhopper, sits on a launchpad after its first launch in April 2019.
Dave Mosher/Business Insider

An environmental impact study of SpaceX’s launch site plans, which the Federal Aviation Administration signed off on in July 2014, downplayed the risk of brush fires caused by rocket launches in the area.

“Launch activities would have minimal impacts to vegetation from potential fire. Fires are unlikely since launch activities would occur over concrete pads with no surrounding vegetation,” Volume I of the report states.

The FAA is reportedly working with SpaceX to assess potential revisions to that agreement, since the company has deviated from the plan it originally pitched for the area.

The initial plan was to launch commercial Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets about once a month from a robust south Texas spaceport. But instead, SpaceX is turning the site into a kind of skunkworks to develop its forthcoming Starship launch system.

Musk said SpaceX will try a roughly 650-foot (200-meter) launch with Starhopper “in a week or two.”

An upshot of the recent brush fire, Winton said, is that it will make it harder for another launch to start a similar blaze, since a lot of dry material has already burned. The fire may also spur SpaceX and government authorities to revisit local fire-management procedures.

“I’m sure we’ll have more discussions and planning to determine how to best deal with this in the future,” Winton said.

This story has been updated.


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