SpaceX’s high-flying Starship prototype has finally landed successfully – a big step towards Elon Musk’s reusable mega-rocket

spacex starship sn15 landing success happy elon musk
The SN15 prototype stuck the landing (left), a big step towards becoming the reusable rocket Elon Musk (right) wants it to be.

On Wednesday, SpaceX sent the latest prototype of its mega-rocket system roaring six miles above Texas, its fifth such launch since December.

SpaceX is no stranger to Starship launches, but unlike the last four attempts, this prototype landed smoothly, without blowing up during its first 15 minutes back on Earth. A previous prototype exploded 10 minutes after landing, after a fire burning around its skirt wouldn’t go out. But this time, the fire at the prototype’s feet appeared to be extinguished.

“Starship landing nominal!” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, CEO, and chief engineer, declared on Twitter.

This version of the spaceship, called Starship serial No. 15, or SN15, followed the same trajectory as its predecessors. The 16-story rocket lifted off from SpaceX’s launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas. As it approached the peak of its flight, the vehicle shut off two of its three truck-sized Raptor engines. It hovered at roughly 33,000 feet before cutting the final engine, then tipped sideways and plunged back to Earth. As it neared the ground, the engines reignited to flip the rocket upright, and then it lowered itself to the landing pad.

As of Wednesday afternoon, SN15 was still sitting upright and intact on the landing pad.

A final version of this mega-spaceship is set to become NASA’s next moon lander – the vehicle that could put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

starship moon human landing system
An illustration of SpaceX’s Starship as a lander carrying NASA astronauts to the moon.

Musk has an ambitious vision for the launch system. The prototypes his company is launching are meant to be the upper stage of a two-part system. Eventually, a roughly 23-story booster called Super Heavy would heave the spaceship toward orbit. Musk wants this system to carry humans into low-Earth orbit, to the moon, and even to Mars, then return to Earth to do it again. The smooth landing of SN15 gets Starship a big step closer to being the reusable vehicle Musk wants.

“It’s a tough vehicle because we’re trying to crack this nut of a fully and rapidly reusable rocket,” Musk said in a NASA press conference on April 23. “Somebody’s got to do this. And if you have rapid and complete reusability, then that is the gateway to the heavens.”

SpaceX is building a booster that could carry Starship to orbit

The SN15 was the second of the five high-flying Starships SpaceX has launched that touched down in one piece – at least initially. The other was SN10, which landed in one piece in early March but blew up 10 minutes later. The first two Starship prototypes that soared to a high altitudes, SN8 and SN9, both slammed into the landing pad at high speeds and exploded immediately. Another, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
From left to right: The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

SpaceX began assembling its first prototype of the Super Heavy booster – the other part of the Starship system – at its Texas facilities in mid-March. Musk said this version of Super Heavy is just for production testing, though the next prototype should fly.

To grasp the size of this launch system, look for the person standing on the lift in this photo Musk shared on Twitter. Starship, not pictured, would sit on top of that booster.

In addition to landing astronauts on the moon, Musk wants the Starship-Super Heavy system to power hypersonic travel on Earth. Ultimately, he has said, he plans to build 1,000 Starships that would carry people and cargo to Mars in order to establish a self-sustaining settlement.

Making Starship-Super Heavy reusable could slash the cost of reaching space by “a factor of 100 or more,” according to Musk. Its enormous size would allow it to carry large payloads to space, including tens of thousands of Starlink internet satellites that SpaceX plans to put into orbit.

In short, this is the launch system on which SpaceX is staking its future. But there are several hurdles to clear before it can reach space.

Environmental reviews could slow Starship’s journey to orbit

spacex starship super heavy spaceship booster rocket launch boca chica south texas illustration
An illustration of SpaceX’s planned 39-story Starship rocket system launching from Boca Chica, Texas.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already booked tickets for himself and eight others for a week-long Starship flight around the moon in 2023. The group is set to become the spaceship’s first passengers. After that, NASA hopes that Starship will return astronauts to the moon in 2024. But a report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” NASA will meet that deadline.

In addition to successfully landing Starship prototypes, SpaceX will need to integrate the Super Heavy booster with the spaceship, learn to launch the two parts together, and show it can land the booster in one piece.

The company will also need to rocket a Starship into orbit to test its ability to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. That will require a new type of launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which involves many regulatory hurdles, including a thorough environmental assessment. Depending on the findings of that assessment, it’s possible SpaceX may need to conduct a new environmental impact statement, which could take up to three years.

Complicating matters is a leaked FAA draft document obtained by Insider that revealed SpaceX’s plans to dig natural gas wells and build gas-fired power plants in Boca Chica. Such plans could prolong SpaceX’s environmental review process.

Still, Musk maintains that Starship could fly its first people in “a couple years.” He has also said he is “highly confident” that SpaceX will launch an uncrewed Starship to Mars in 2024, followed by a crewed mission in 2026.

“I tend to be somewhat optimistic with respect to schedules. I feel I should acknowledge this,” he said in the NASA briefing. “So take that with a grain of salt. But I think it’s not out of the question that it could fly people in a couple years.”

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SpaceX is preparing to test-fly a new Starship after the last four exploded. It could return NASA astronauts to the moon.

elon musk starship happy success thumb 4x3
Left: The SN10 Starship prototypes soars above Boca Chica, Texas on March 3, 2021. Right: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX is getting ready to launch its fifth high-flying Starship from its Texas rocket facilities this week.

Unlike its predecessors, this particular mega-spaceship is a relative of NASA’s next moon lander – the vehicle that will put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

Starship serial No. 11, or SN15, is the latest of a series of Starship prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to six miles above Boca Chica, Texas.

As SN15 approaches the peak of its flight, it should shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one. Then SN15 should tip sideways and plunge back to Earth, using four wing flaps to control its fall.

As it nears the ground, SN15 should reignite its engines to flip itself upright again and gently lower to the landing pad. This is where its predecessors have failed, though.

The first two prototypes that soared to high altitude, SN8 and SN9, slammed into the landing pad at high speed and exploded immediately. The third, SN10, landed in one piece but blew up 10 minutes later. The fourth, SN11, exploded in mid-air as it re-lit its engines for landing.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
From left to right: The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

For SpaceX, explosions during rocket development are par for the course.

“They use a different development philosophy than the government does, which is: Fly. If something goes wrong, they try to fix it. Fly again. If something else goes wrong, they try to fix that,” John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider after the fourth Starship explosion. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”

But, he added, “the fact that they’ve had these early development-program problems means that there will have to be a record of success before anybody except an extreme risk taker is willing to get aboard.”

Nailing the landing is even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.

The agency announced on Friday that it’s working with SpaceX to turn Starship into the lunar lander that will jumpstart its Artemis program, which aims to establish a permanent human presence on the moon. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship there in 2024, but a new report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet this deadline.

starship moon human landing system
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

On SpaceX’s end, a major step toward the moon will be flying and landing Starships here on Earth – without blowing them up.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has ambitions beyond the lunar surface, though. Ultimately, he has said, he plans to build 1,000 Starships that carry people and cargo to Mars and establish a settlement there.

Musk said Thursday on Twitter that the company was aiming to launch SN15 sometime this week. Government clearances indicate that Tuesday and Wednesday might offer flight opportunities.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued airspace-closure notices for the area from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The Cameron County judge has also issued local road closures – another requirement for launch – from noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday.

How to watch Starship’s flight live

As of Monday afternoon, SN15 was upright on the Boca Chica launchpad. During the test flight, SpaceX will likely livestream from that site and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are located.

The up-close cameras have provided stunning footage of past Starship flights, like the below footage of SN9. (We’ll embed SpaceX’s live feed below once it’s available.)

In the meantime, a few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company are broadcasting live from Boca Chica.

NASASpaceflight broadcasters will likely cover a critical “static fire” engine test that SpaceX must conduct ahead of launch, anchoring SN15 to the launchpad and igniting its engines. It’s unclear when that will happen, but the earliest opportunity is Tuesday.

LabPadre, a YouTube channel from Louis Balderas, a Texas resident who lives just across the bay from Boca Chica, offers six unique views of the Starship launch site. Below is the channel’s main 4K-resolution feed.

For a more distant view of the launch site – broadcast from the top of a hotel resort in South Padre Island about 6 miles away – check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.

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SpaceX’s new Starship rocket prototype exploded at the end of a test flight yet again, sending debris flying

SN11
A screen shot of SpaceX’s landing pad in Texas during the SN11 prototype flight on March 30, 2021. Arrows indicate flying debris.

SpaceX’s latest Starship rocket prototype once again failed to finish its test flight in one piece.

This version of the vehicle, called Starship serial No. 11, or SN11, sent debris raining down during an unsuccessful landing attempt on Tuesday morning. It’s not yet clear whether the rocket blew up in the air during its descent, or whether it exploded upon touching the landing pad.

Starship heaved itself off the launchpad at 8 a.m. local time, launching 6 miles into the skies above Texas. As it approached the peak of its flight, the 16-story rocket shut off two of its three truck-sized Raptor engines. It hovered at 33,000 feet, then cut the final engine, tipped sideways, and plunged back to Earth.

As it neared the ground, the rocket was supposed to reignite its engines to flip upright and land gently. Instead, its onboard cameras froze after the engine ignition sequence. Because of a thick fog in Boca Chica, Texas, it was impossible to see SN11 as it approached the landing pad.

SpaceX’s live feed of the launch cut out after 5 minutes and 49 seconds of footage.

A live feed from NASASpaceflight shows debris falling around the launchpad, presumably from the rocket.

While the rocket landed too hard, and possibly already in pieces, it did reach the correct spot: “At least the crater is in the right place!” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, tweeted on Tuesday.

“Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” Musk tweeted. “Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.”

He added that it seemed like one of the engines had issues on the rocket’s ascent.

The launch was SpaceX’s fourth Starship prototype flight attempt since December. The Starship prototype that launched prior to this one, called SN10, stuck the landing at first after its flight earlier this month, but it exploded 10 minutes later. The two before that, SN8 and SN9, both crashed immediately and blew up.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
From left to right: The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

SpaceX will have to master landing the Starship – without any explosions, immediate or delayed – in order to achieve founder Elon Musk’s goal of building the world’s first fully reusable launch system.

SpaceX has started building the booster designed to carry Starship to orbit

The Starship prototypes SpaceX is launching are meant to be the upper stage of a two-part system. Eventually, a roughly 23-story booster called Super Heavy would heave the Starship spaceship toward orbit.

SpaceX began assembling its first prototype of that booster at its Texas facilities in mid-March. Musk said this version of Super Heavy is just for production testing, though the next prototype should fly.

To grasp the size of this launch system, look for the person standing on the lift in this photo Musk shared on Twitter. Then imagine Starship sitting on top of that booster.

Musk wants the Starship-Super Heavy system to one day fly astronauts to the moon and power hypersonic travel on Earth. Ultimately, he has said, he plans to build 1,000 Starships in order to carry people and cargo to Mars and establish a settlement there.

Making Starship-Super Heavy reusable could slash the cost of reaching space 1,000-fold. Its enormous size would allow it to carry large payloads to space, including tens of thousands of Starlink internet satellites that SpaceX plans to put into orbit.

In short, this is the launch system on which SpaceX is staking its future. But there are several hurdles to clear before it can reach space.

Environmental reviews could slow Starship’s journey to orbit

spacex starship super heavy spaceship booster rocket launch boca chica south texas illustration
An illustration of SpaceX’s planned 39-story Starship rocket system launching from Boca Chica, Texas.

In addition to landing Starship prototypes without blowing them up, SpaceX will need to integrate the Super Heavy booster with the spaceship, learn to launch the two parts together, and show it can land the booster in one piece.

The company will also need to rocket a Starship into orbit to test its ability to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. That will require a new type of launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, but obtaining it requires clearing many regulatory hurdles, including a thorough environmental assessment. Depending on the findings of that assessment, it’s possible SpaceX may need to conduct a new environmental impact statement, which could take up to three years.

Complicating matters is a leaked FAA draft document obtained by Insider that revealed SpaceX’s plans to dig natural gas wells and build gas-fired power plants in Boca Chica. Such plans could prolong SpaceX’s environmental review process.

Musk, however, has said he is “highly confident” SpaceX will launch an uncrewed Starship to Mars in 2024, followed by a crewed mission in 2026.

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A cyberpunk scene at SpaceX’s launch facilities: A robot dog inspected the wreckage of a Starship rocket prototype

spacex robot dog zeus starship sn10

SpaceX created a futuristic tableau at its Texas rocket-testing facilities on Thursday, when a robo-dog wandered the wreckage of its latest Starship prototype.

SpaceX launched the rocket prototype, called Starship serial No. 10, or SN10, on Wednesday. Like the last two prototypes before it, SN10 climbed to nearly 33,000 feet above the company’s facilities in the town of Boca Chica. Then it shut off its engines and plummeted to Earth in a belly-flop position, controlling its fall with four wing flaps.

Unlike its predecessors, which both slammed into the ground and exploded immediately, SN10 successfully re-fired its engines to flip itself upright and touch down softly on the ground. But then it exploded spectacularly 10 minutes later.

sn10 starship explosion landing spacex
SpaceX’s SN10 Starship rocket prototype exploded on the landing pad minutes after touchdown on Wednesday.

With the air cleared and the roads reopened, photographers and SpaceX fans flocked to the company’s facilities on  Thursday morning to watch the clean-up from a distance. That’s when they spotted a fascinating four-legged robot wandering the wreckage.

Spadre.com shared videos of the agile bot on Twitter.

 

The life-like machine is a Boston Dynamics “Spot” robot dog, which SpaceX has apparently renamed Zeus, according to photos that show the name printed across a red doghouse where the robot lives.

Zeus has been spotted inspecting SpaceX landing sites before. It’s not clear what exactly the mechanical pooch was doing at the SN10 explosion site, but Zeus is likely outfitted with cameras and sensors to collect data, since approaching wrecked rockets can be unsafe for humans.

SpaceX did not respond to Insider’s request for further details.

 

The rocket Zeus was inspecting is designed as the upper stage of a two-part system; a roughly 23-story booster called Super Heavy would one day heave the Starship spaceship toward orbit. But eliminating these explosions from the vehicle’s landing process is crucial, since SpaceX is designing Starship and Super Heavy to be fully and rapidly reusable. A spaceship that blows up after it lands is, of course, tough to relaunch.

If the system works, though, Starship-Super Heavy could slash the cost of reaching space 1,000-fold, since it would eliminate the need to build new rockets and spaceships for each spaceflight. Musk wants to eventually construct a fleet of reusable Starships to power round-the-world hypersonic travel on Earth, fly astronauts to the moon, and one day carry people to Mars.

Musk has said that he is “highly confident” SpaceX will launch an uncrewed Starship to Mars in 2024, followed by a crewed mission in 2026.

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