SpaceX just completed another test flight of an early Mars rocket concept at its South Texas plant, sending the towering silver spacecraft soaring to a height of around six miles above Earth, then performing a series of aerial acrobatics before re-lighting two of its engines and landing it upright on a landing pad.
The SN15 spacecraft was the fifth of SpaceX’s rocket designs to attempt such a landing, and the first to succeed. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, announced the successful landing on Twitter.
It comes after four previous prototypes tried to land safely after flying a few miles into the sky, all of which ended in explosions.
SN15 is a prototype for Starship, Musk’s vehicle that he hopes will one day transport the first humans to Mars.
According to SpaceX, the vehicle has many advantages over its predecessors. Upgrades include hardware, communication and navigation systems, software, and the Raptor engines, which are huge engines.
During a September 2019 media event, Musk first revealed Starship’s intended landing system. He described it as a one-of-a-kind manoeuvre in which the rocket would dive back through the air with its belly pointing toward the Earth while its four fins shifted slightly to keep it stable. Musk said the manoeuvre is meant to resemble how a skydiver will fall through the air, rather than the straight vertical descent to Earth that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets use when landing.
According to the company’s website, perfecting the belly-flop landing manoeuvre is necessary to, “enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.”
SN11, the most recent prototype to fly, exploded during landing, raining shrapnel on a nearby beach and endangering nearby camera equipment set up by YouTubers trying to capture footage of the launch. The previous prototype, SN10, landed upright in March, but according to independent video, the vehicle exploded three minutes later.
So far, all of SpaceX’s Starship designs have been far less powerful than Musk’s final product. While most test vehicles had three engines, the final starship is projected to have more than 30, including a separate, giant rocket booster known as Super Heavy that will be used to get to orbit.
Though Musk has stated that a Starship vehicle will enter orbit within a year, SpaceX has yet to publicly test the Super Heavy rocket booster.
NASA’s Artemis moon program will also receive a slightly updated version of the spacecraft from SpaceX. Starship will be used to ferry astronauts from a space station orbiting the moon back to the lunar surface over the next several years under a newly awarded contract, marking the first time humans have returned to the moon since NASA’s Apollo program in the mid-20th century.