SpaceX Starship Successfully Lands Vertically

Artist’s rendering of a SpaceX Starship rocket on the Moon. Image credit: SpaceX

After a few explosions and failures along the way, the futuristic Starship from SpaceX successfully returns to earth and lands upright

SpaceX has launched and successfully landed (vertically) its futuristic Starship on Wednesday, in a move that heralds a step forward for exploring other planets.

“On Wednesday, May 5, Starship serial number 15 (SN15) successfully completed SpaceX’s fifth high-altitude flight test of a Starship prototype from Starbase in Texas,” the firm announced.

Previous high-altitude flight tests of Starship had not gone so well. The Starlink SN8 prototype exploded as it attempted to land vertically in December for example.

SpaceX's Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX

Nominal landing

In February the Starship SN9 prototype also exploded on impact during an attempted landing.

In early March the SN10 prototype successfully landed upright near its launch site. However, roughly three minutes after landing, the rocket exploded on its landing pad.

But all through these successive failures, SpaceX was gaining valuable data and learning lessons for the reuseable rocket that Elon Musk hopes will carry mankind to the moon and eventually Mars.

SpaceX said that the SN15 test rocket on Wednesday was “powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 km in altitude.”

“SN15 performed a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent,” the firm said.

“The Starship prototype descended under active aerodynamic control, accomplished by independent movement of two forward and two aft flaps on the vehicle,” it added. “All four flaps were actuated by an onboard flight computer to control Starship’s attitude during flight and enabled precise landing at the intended location. SN15’s Raptor engines reignited as the vehicle performed the landing flip maneuver immediately before touching down for a nominal landing on the pad.”

“Congratulations to the entire SpaceX team on SN15’s successful flight and landing!” it added.

A video of the successful launch and landing can be found here.

“Starship landing nominal!” Elon Musk tweeted.

Nominal essentially means “by the book”.

A fire at the base of the 160ft (50-meter) rocket was extinguished.

Busy period

The success of Starship SN15 came on the 60th anniversary of the flight of first American in space, Alan Shepard.

It caps an impressive two weeks of achievements for SpaceX, which launched four more astronauts to the space station for NASA.

It also carried out the first night-time crew splashdown since the Apollo moonshots, and has successfully conducted two launches to add to its Starlink internet satellite fleet in orbit.

Last month NASA awarded the lunar rocket contract to SpaceX, beating out Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics.

Both Blue Origin and Dynetics have protested NASA’s contract award, halting work on the project to return mankind to the moon.

Planetary transporter

SpaceX had first revealed the giant stainless-steel space vehicle Starship MK1 to the world back in September 2019.

SpaceX's Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX

The Starship is designed to ferry dozens of passengers (or cargo) to the Moon and Mars, in line with a long-term NASA project called Artemis.

Indeed, Elon Musk has already signed up his first commercial passenger, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who wants to fly around the Moon and back with a group of artists.

The rocket prototypes are built of stainless steel, and will be able to carry both cargo and as many as a 100 people at a time on missions to the moon and Mars.

While SpaceX’s fleet of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are designed to be partially reusable, Musk’s goal is to make Starship fully reusable.

Indeed, his vision is of a rocket that is more akin to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights – where the only major cost is fuel.