SpaceX flew the 15th prototype of its Starship fully reusable next-generation rocket today, with a test flight that included a successful climb to around 30,000 feet, as well as a controlled flip, descent and soft landing upright as planned. A very small fire appeared to break out at the base of the rocket shortly after landing but it was contained. The craft was powered by three Raptor rocket engines, which shut down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee (it’s highest point, around 10km).
This is a big milestone for SpaceX, which has flown prototypes before, but which hasn’t yet seen a test conclude with the test vehicle intact. Prototypes SN8 and SN9 were destroyed while trying to land, while SN10 exploded shortly after landing. It’s last test launch, SN11, ended in an explosion and total loss of the rocket just before touchdown.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed the good touchdown of 150-foot SN15 just after the launch livestream concluded. This is a key step in development of the Starship’s orbital capabilities, which will require the vehicle to perform this landing maneuver after it’s launched to space atop a Super Heavy booster rocket (also in development) and makes the return trip from orbit.
SN15 also features a number of “vehicle improvements across structures, avionics and software” that includes “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,” SpaceX said on its website.
SpaceX aims to use Starship for future lunar and Mars launches and landings.
The Federal Aviation Administration last week gave authorization for SpaceX to conduct its next three test flights of its Starship program, including Wednesday’s flight. The next two will be the flights of SN16 and SN17 Starships.