SpaceX successfully launched and landed a high-altitude Starship prototype rocket, Serial Number 15 (SN15), for the first time on Wednesday, overcoming a crucial hurdle in Elon Musk’s frantic search to develop a completely reusable Mars rocket.
The SN15 rocket, according to Musk, has “hundreds of structural changes” over previous high-altitude designs, many of which were lost during explosive landing attempts.
“We are down! The Starship has landed,” John Insprucker, SpaceX’s principal integration engineer, said during live commentary.
Starship SN15 took off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas facilities at 6:24 p.m. ET, flying over 6 miles into the sky to test in-flight maneuvers. The three Raptor engines on SN15 steadily shut down as it approached peak altitude, initiating a horizontal free-fall back to Earth.
As the rocket approached the ground, two engines re-ignited in order to perform a complex “landing flip maneuver,” in which the rocket reorients/repositions itself vertically ahead of a soft landing.
The rocket landed squarely on a concrete pad not far from its launchpad, establishing itself as the first surviving Starship prototype. After landing, a small fire broke out at the rocket’s base — “not unusual with the methane fuel that we’re carrying,” SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said on the livestream — but it was quickly extinguished.
“Starship landing nominal!” Must tweeted a few minutes after SN15’s touchdown, declaring success.
The four previous test artefacts all encountered difficulties during their touchdown maneuvers, eventually damaging themselves. SN15, on the other hand, had no such issues, landing safely and in a regulated manner at SpaceX’s R&D facility in Texas.
From those previous rocky landings, SpaceX has learned a few things. SN15 also differs from the previous prototypes in a few ways.
“SN15 has vehicle improvements across structures, avionics and software, and the engines that will allow more speed and efficiency throughout production and flight: specifically, a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt, and a new Raptor engine design and configuration,” SpaceX representatives wrote in a description of today’s flight.
The uncrewed test took place on the 60th anniversary of the United States’ first crewed spaceflight, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital mission. The historical parallel is coincidental but appropriate, as SN15’s success represents a significant move forward in SpaceX’s plans to help humanity expand its footprint out into space.
SpaceX is building the Starship, which will transport people and cargo to the moon, Mars, and other far-flung locations. The system is made up of two parts: a spacecraft called Starship and a massive first-stage booster called Super Heavy, all of which are designed to be totally and quickly reusable.
SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engine would fuel both of these vehicles. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, has stated that Starship will have six Raptors and Super Heavy will have around 30.
In terms of height and width, SN15 is a full-scale Starship prototype, but it only has three Raptors. Future test versions will be more efficient, and we should see them fly relatively soon; Musk has stated that SpaceX plans to launch a Starship into Earth orbit by the end of the year.
If the test program goes well, Starship could be operational in a matter of months. Musk recently stated that he expects the device to be fully operational in 2023, but he did admit that his timelines are always unrealistic.
SpaceX already has a Starship mission in the works with a target launch date of 2023 — “dearMoon,” which will send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a small group of others on a weeklong journey around Earth’s nearest neighbor.
If everything goes as planned, the Starship will also transport NASA astronauts to the moon. The space agency’s Artemis lunar exploration program recently selected Starship as its crewed moon lander.
By the end of the 2020s, Artemis hopes to have established a long-term human presence on and around the moon. According to NASA officials, the knowledge and skills gained during this effort will aid humanity’s journey to Mars in the 2030s.
NASA has been working for several years to achieve the first crewed Artemis moon landing by the end of 2024, as directed by former President Donald Trump’s administration. However, under President Joe Biden, that timeline is expected to be loosened.