SpaceX's Starship SN15 prototype finally succeeds at high-altitude flight, landing
Elon Musk-led SpaceX successfully launched a high-altitude Starship prototype on Wednesday. It also marks a historic achievement for the company as the SN15 rocket is the first to land safely after the flight. All the company's previous high-altitude Starship prototypes blew up either during, or shortly after landing. Musk noted that the SN15 packs hundreds of design improvements. It looks like that paid off.
For the uninitiated, Starship is a reusable rocket prototype being developed by SpaceX to send humans and up to 100 tons of cargo to the moon and to Mars. Interestingly, the 16-story tall high-altitude prototypes are just the top half of Starship. The bottom half will reportedly be a "super-heavy" booster that will assist with the launch.
The SN15 has "improvements across structures, avionics and software, and the engines that will allow more speed and efficiency throughout production and flight: specifically, a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt, and a new Raptor engine design and configuration."
The SN15 lifted off from SpaceX's facilities in Boca Chica, Texas at 6:24 PM eastern time. It soared to an altitude of 6.2 miles where it gradually shut off its three Raptor engines. During horizontal freefall back to Earth, two engines re-ignited to execute a "landing flip maneuver" to land vertically. Shortly after landing, a small fire appeared near the rocket's base.
SpaceX Principal Integration Engineer John Insprucker remarked during the flight's live stream that the fire is "not unusual with the methane fuel that we're carrying". The fire was reportedly extinguished later. Around seven minutes after a successful launch and landing, an exuberant Elon Musk tweeted "Starship landing nominal!" announcing the success. The successful SN15 landing is a historic moment for SpaceX and NASA too.
Earlier, SpaceX was awarded a $2.9 billion contract to build NASA's Artemis moon lander which will be ferried by a Starship rocket sometime in 2024. Competing bidders Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics have since alleged that NASA's evaluation unfairly favored the Starship, which has halted SpaceX's ability to use the contract's funds. The company continues to fuel development with private funding.