SpaceX successfully launched an updated prototype of its next-generation Starship vehicle on Wednesday, and after a handful of attempts that all ended in dramatic explosions during the landing phase, SN15 is the first to finally touch down softly.
The early, three-engine version of a rocket that Elon Musk, SpaceX head honcho, hopes will eventually take humans to Mars flew to an altitude of about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers), did a brief single-engine hover before flipping horizontal for its long coast towards the landing pad. It then lit back up to flip to vertical position and came in for a soft and rather pretty landing powered by a landing burn from just two of its Raptor engines.
The landing caps off a busy period for SpaceX that has seen the return of astronauts to Earth aboard a Crew Dragon and a milestone Starlink launch, not to mention Musk is hosting Saturday Night Live this week.
“The past few weeks have been full of accomplishments by the SpaceX team,” said SpaceX engineer and commentator John Insprucker on the SpaceX livestream. “An outstanding period as we work to enable the future of human spaceflight.”
Elon Musk’s space company conducted high-altitude test flights of prototypes SN8 through SN11 and had long planned to integrate what Musk called “major upgrades” into SN15. The company skipped SN12, SN13 and SN14, which were never fully assembled.
Musk said SN15 “has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software and engine,” including, apparently, upgrades to cover some of the problems that prevented SpaceX from sticking the landing without a rapid unscheduled disassembly.