Space exploration company, SpaceX has successfully launched another test flight of an early Mars rocket prototype at its South Texas facility.
SpaceX sent the towering silver vehicle up to about six miles above Earth. The rocket was then put through a series of aerial acrobatics before re-lighting two of its engines and landing it upright back on a landing pad.
The rocket, which was codenamed SN15, was SpaceX’s fifth rocket prototypes to attempt such a landing. SN15 is, however, the first to do so successfully. Earlier attempts have all ended in explosions.
SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, tweeted a confirmation of the successful landing on Twitter:
SN15 is an early iteration of Starship, the vehicle that Musk envisions will one day carry the first humans to Mars.
According to SpaceX, the vehicle has several improvements over its predecessors. The improvements include upgrades to its hardware, communication and navigation systems, software and it’s massive engines, which are called Raptor engines.
Musk first explained Starship’s intended landing method during a September 2019 media event.
During an event in 2019, Elon Musk stated that Starship’s landing method is a unique maneuver that would see the rocket dive back through the air with its belly pointed toward the Earth as its four fins shift slightly to keep it steady.
Musk added that the maneuver is intended to mimic a skydiver falling through the air, rather than the straight vertical descent to Earth that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets employ when they come in for landings.
According to the company’s website, perfecting the belly-flop landing maneuver is essential 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, which was the last prototype launched, exploded during landing. The SN11 rained shrapnel on a nearby beach and threatened nearby video equipment that was set up by YouTubers trying to capture footage of the launch.
The prototype before that, SN10, landed upright in March but independent footage of the event showed the vehicle exploded about three minutes later.
So far, SpaceX’s Starship prototypes have less power than the final product envisioned by Musk.
While most of the test vehicles have had three engines, the final spaceship is expected to have more than 30 engines, including a separate, massive rocket booster, called Super Heavy, and would be used for getting to orbit.
The Super Heavy rocket booster has not gone through public testing, however, CEO, Elon Musk hopes that one of the Starship vehicles would reach orbit within a year.
SpaceX is also planning to use a modified version of the Starship vehicle for the Artemis program. The contract for the Artemis program was awarded to SpaceX by NASA, and aims to send humans back to the moon within the next couple of years.