SpaceX has finally launched its latest full-scale prototype of its Mars-bound Starship rocket — and this time, for the first time, it stuck the landing.
The 165-foot stainless steel spacecraft, dubbed SN15, launched from the space company’s test facilities in South Texas Wednesday evening at 5:25 pm local time.
It climbed to a height of ten kilometers before passing through a cloud and reappearing above it. After shutting off its engines, it began a horizontal descent before relighting them to turn itself upright again. Then SN15 softly landed on the landing pad below. Several minutes of tense waiting followed.
“We are down! The Starship has landed,” John Insprucker, SpaceX’s principal integration engineer, said during live commentary.
After landing, flames could be seen coming from the prototype’s bottom skirt, causing remotely controlled water hoses to attempt to put out the fire for several minutes — long after SpaceX concluded its official webcast of the event.
But it didn’t explode — unlike SN10, which landed on March 3, but blew up several minutes later.
“Starship landing nominal!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted after the fire was put out.
It’s a huge win for Elon Musk’s company, proving that Starship is capable of launching — and landing — without blowing itself to pieces.
SN15 is the fifth full-scale prototype to take to the skies. All four prototypes preceding it have met an early demise, exploding in huge balls of fire.
The prototype featured “hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software and engine,” according to Musk. The prototype’s predecessor SN11 exploded on March 30 inside a massive wall of fog due to a methane leak.
Now, SpaceX can focus on getting Starship into orbit, boosted by a second gigantic rocket called Super Heavy.
Though SN15 is a full-scale Starship prototype in terms of height and width, it features just three Raptors. Future test variants will be more powerful, and we should see these brawnier vehicles fly relatively soon; Musk has said that SpaceX aims to launch a Starship into Earth orbit before the end of the year.
If the test program progresses well, Starship could be up and running not long after that. Musk said recently that he expects the system to be fully operational sometime in 2023, though he did acknowledge that his timelines tend to be ambitious.