Elon Musk’s SpaceX took one small ‘hop’ closer towards the surface of Mars on Tuesday after completing the first successful launch and landing of its Starship rocket.
Dubbed the SN5, the potentially revolutionary prototype performed an almost 500-foot leap above SpaceX’s development facility in Boco Chica, Texas, at 5pm local time.
The nine-story large metallic cylinder ignited its single Raptor engine and slowly rose into the air before gently returning to the ground and landing upright a short distance away from where launched.
‘Mars is looking real,’ Musk tweeted in response to the launch Tuesday evening, later adding that ‘Progress is accelerating’.
For a moment after the engine first ignited, it looked as if the prototype was struggling to get airborne, but then it suddenly rose above its own smoke, hovered and came in for a soft landing.
‘And when the smoke cleared, she stood there majestically, after the 150 meter flight!’ tweeted NASA’s top scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen.
The SN5 traveled a minute fraction of the more than 35 million miles Musk hopes the final Starship will traverse to take humans to Mars.
The current prototype, resembling a giant metal thermos, doesn’t have all the features of a traditional rocket as it has no nose cone, flaps or other structural features designed to guide it through the upper atmosphere.
The Starship envisioned by Musk will be 120 meters tall and will be able to land vertically on Mars, the CEO had pledged.
Musk later tweeted that in its next phase, the SN5’s landing legs will be ‘60% longer’ and ‘will be much wide and taller … but capable of of landing on unimproved surfaces & auto-leveling.’
The 500 feet it traveled is the furthest one of these prototypes has come in the testing process so far. Several previous prototypes exploded during ground tests, in a learning process of trial and error.
Each failure has taught SpaceX valuable lessons to inform design and material changes, Musk said, adding that such changes are already being worked into SN6, SN7, and SN8 prototypes, which are currently in various stages of assembly within the Boca Chica site.
An earlier ‘hop’ launch for the Starship was aborted on Tuesday moments before the successful launch.
SN5 completed seven key tests that led up to ‘liftoff,’ but following the 11:24 ET siren point, it began smoking.
Plumes of liquid oxygen reaching nearly 100 feet in the air began flowing from the craft, which are said to be a result of an emergency detanking.
The team began a flare purge about 10 minutes later to release the pressure and eliminate the plume.
The initial launch was originally scheduled yesterday but the test was scrapped on that occasion because the turbopump spin start valve wouldn’t open in its giant Raptor engine.
The massive rocket is SpaceX’s planned next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle, the center Musk’s ambitions to make human space travel affordable.
Musk previously said the lifetime of each Starship will be around 20 to 30 years, ‘like an aircraft’.
Around three Starship flights will launch from Earth per day, or around 1,000 flights a year, and each will have a capacity of more than 90,000 pounds.
By continuously ferrying people the 180 million miles to Mars, Musk is predicting 1,000 human inhabitants by 2030 and ‘maybe around’ one million by 2050.
However, if SpaceX’s track record continues down the same path, the billionaire may never get the change to colonize Mars.
In May, the prototype Serial Number 4 vanished into a fireball at SpaceX’s site in Texas shortly the engine was ignited for a pressurized test.
The SN4 had passed several important milestones during development, including a pressurization test that had foiled previous models.
The first rocket was tested in 2019, Mk1 prototype, but was engulfed in flames during a cryogenic pressure test.
The second rocket, dubbed Serial Number 1 (SN1), fell victim to another pressure test when it failed to contain its liquid nitrogen.
However, this time the stainless steel cylinder flew off the stand and came down crashing.
And the third time SpaceX saw its third catastrophic failure was in April – again the Starship prototype imploded during the cryogenic pressure test.
Musk said after the flight of SN5 that the next phase of testing won’t involve flying prototypes very high, at least initially.
‘We’ll do several short hops to smooth out launch process, then go high altitude with body flaps,’ he said Tuesday.
It’s been a successful year for the Elon Musk-owned space firm.
Among its achievements are the fact it launched and returned the first astronauts for the International Space Station from US soil in nearly a decade.
SpaceX is also due to launch its Starlink internet broadband service to customers later this year after putting nearly 600 satellites into orbit.
It is also one of three companies in the running to build a lunar Human Landing system for NASA alongside Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin and Dynetics.