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First perfect touchdown for SpaceX's Starship prototype

Thursday, May 6th 2021, 3:38 pm - After losing four Starship prototypes in previous tests, SpaceX's latest rocket stuck the landing on Wednesday.

Wednesday's fifth test of their Starship rocket was an extra win for SpaceX. It became the first of these prototypes to successfully touch down after its high-altitude flight.

Early in the evening on May 5, 2021, the rumbling of a rocket launch split the air near Boca Chica, as SpaceX's Starship Serial Number 15 (SN15) prototype lifted off from the company's Starbase facility along the Texas coastline.

Rather than shooting for space, the three raptor engines on this uncrewed rocket powered it up to an altitude of 10 kilometres above the ground. The rocket briefly hovered there on one engine and then dropped back down towards the surface.

Starship is a significant change from SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, which plummet almost straight down towards their landing spots, relying on their engines to slow their descent for touchdown. Starship prototypes are designed with flaps that allow them to fly aerodynamically, like an airplane. Simply by flipping onto its side, a Starship can slow itself down and steer itself towards the landing zone. Only when it is moments from touchdown does it flip vertical again, reigniting two of its engines to bring it in for a soft landing.

The four previous Starships launched on this same high-altitude test flight β€” SN8, SN9, SN10, and SN11 β€” all successfully reached their goal of at least 10 kilometres above the ground. Each was lost on the landing attempt, however.

SN8 and SN9 came in too fast, crashed into the ground and exploded. SN10 performed a successful flight and appeared to touch down safely, but then exploded eight minutes later. SN11 blew up in mid-air, shortly after its engines reignited, raining debris down on the pad.

SN15 is the first Starship that managed to successfully stick the landing.

According to SpaceX: "These test flights of Starship are all about improving our understanding and development of 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."

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