SN15 marked the first SpaceX Starship prototype that was not destroyed after a high-altitude test flight. While a small fire broke out at the base of the rocket after the landing, the blaze appeared contained a few minutes later.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched and then landed the latest prototype of its SpaceX Starship rocket in the fifth high-altitude test flight of the system. SpaceX Starship prototype rocket Serial Number 15, or SpaceX Starship (SN-15), flew as high as 10 kilometers, or about 33,000 feet.
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The vehicle, powered by its three engines, raced into the cloudy skies over Boca Chica, adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. It traveled for four minutes to an altitude of about six miles, powering down engines and hovering for a time before beginning its trip back toward Earth’s surface.
During the return to the landing pad, it flipped over into a horizontal orientation to begin its descent. As it neared the surface, it reactivated its engines and brought itself back into a vertical orientation, slowing its approach to the ground in a cloud of smoke.
But SpaceX Starship SN15 had no such difficulty, making a tidy, controlled return to the ground at SpaceX’s R&D facility in Texas. A small fire licked around the base of the vehicle on touchdown but was soon extinguished.
The uncrewed SpaceX Starship SN15 left its launch mount at the Boca Chica facility, and rose vertically on the thrust of three methane-burning Raptor engines. These power units shut down in sequence as the target height of roughly 10km (6.2 miles) was approached, with the vehicle then leaning over into the horizontal for the drop to the ground.
This belly-flop descent, controlled by large flaps at either end of the vehicle, is intended to simulate how future, operational SpaceX Starship will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere from orbit, presenting a large surface area to the direction of travel to scrub off speed. SN-15, in contrast, made a perfect flip back to the vertical and set itself down gently on its stubby legs.
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The successful launch and landing on Wednesday included an ascent to around 30,000 feet, where the 150-foot-tall spacecraft flipped onto its “belly” and then descended back to Earth, returning vertical and firing its engines to slow its descent and touch down softly, standing upright. This atmospheric testing is a key step meant to help prove out the technologies and systems that will later help SpaceX Starship return to Earth after its orbital launches.
The successful test comes less than a month after SpaceX secured a $3 billion contract with Nasa to further develop SpaceX Starship in order to return humans to the Moon by 2024.
Earlier this month, NASA awarded SpaceX a nearly $3 billion contract to build a lunar variation of SpaceX Starship to carry astronauts to the moon’s surface for the agency’s Artemis missions. However, while Musk’s company continues to move forward with SpaceX Starship development, NASA suspended SpaceX work on the HLS program after Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Leidos’ subsidiary Dynetics each filed protests of the NASA contract award.
The SpaceX Starship SN15 flight was similar to the ones SpaceX Starship has conducted in the past six months, with the test flights of prototypes SN8, SN9, SN10 and SN11. While each of the prior rockets launched successfully and completed multiple development objectives, all four prototypes were explosively destroyed – SN8 and SN9 on impact during landing attempts, SN10 a few minutes after landing, and SN11 moments before its landing attempt.
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The latest prototype SpaceX Starship, Serial Number 15 (SN15), has just completed a successful high-altitude ascent and landing. The four previous test artefacts all ran into trouble as they went through their touchdown manoeuvres, ultimately destroying themselves in the process.
SpaceX noted in a statement on its website that SpaceX Starship SN15 features “vehicle improvements across structures, avionics and software” compared to the prior SpaceX Starship prototypes. “Specifically, a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt, and a new Raptor engine design and configuration,” SpaceX said.
The FAA announced the authorization of the next three SpaceX Starship launches – SN15, SN16, and SN16 – saying it will “verify that SpaceX implemented corrective actions arising from the SN11 mishap investigation.”
SpaceX hopes to perform an orbital test of SpaceX Starship before July, with preparations already in place for flights of SpaceX Starship SN16 and beyond.
A prototype of a SpaceX Starship that SpaceX hopes one day to send to the moon and Mars touched down in one piece on a landing pad in South Texas on Wednesday. It was the fifth high-altitude flight test of SpaceX Starship, a vehicle that in several earlier test flights exploded either during or after landing.
SpaceX is fresh off a high for its SpaceX Starship spacecraft development program, but according to CEO Elon Musk, it’s already looking ahead to potentially repeating its latest success with an unplanned early reusability experiment. Now, Musk says they could fly the same prototype a second time, a first for the SpaceX Starship test and development effort.
It was a proud moment for SpaceX — the Elon Musk-led space company managed to pull off a near-perfect launch and landing of its SpaceX Starship prototype SN15 last week.
The completion of the high-altitude flight test of SpaceX Starship SN15 marks a major milestone in Elon Musk’s ambitions to send humans to Mars.
First, SpaceX Starship SN15 may now become the first full-scale prototype to be flown twice. The structure features “hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software and engine” according to a March tweet by the CEO.
SpaceX has more SpaceX Starship prototypes in various stages of readiness. It is iterating the design, making upgrades as engineers learn how to build and fly the rockets. Operational SpaceX Starships will eventually launch atop a booster called Super Heavy. This will feature perhaps 28 Raptors, producing more than 70 meganewtons (16 million lbs) of thrust – about double that of the mighty Apollo Saturn 5 rocket, which sent men to the Moon.
Elon Musk previously said that he plans to build up to 100 SpaceX Starships every year, with each one capable of flying multiple times per day carrying people and cargo around the Solar System.