Looking like a huge stainless steel grain silo from afar, SpaceX’s full-scale Starship tank section made its biggest leap yet yesterday, as it successfully conducted a 150-metre test flight, and just as importantly, landed in one piece; a hop that even got the boss excited, "Mars is looking real," tweeted Musk in response to a fan shortly after the test flight.
Built in a few weeks by SpaceX teams on the Texas coast, in Boca Chica, the latest incarnation, SN5 is powered by the same methane and oxygen-fuelled Raptor engine SpaceX intends to use to reach Mars.
Although SN5 featured a single Raptor, the operational Starship will have 31 Raptors of its own and will launch from Earth atop a gigantic rocket called Super Heavy. Musk also envisions it will stand 120 metres tall and will be able to land vertically on the Red Planet.
In typical SpaceX style, both vehicles will be fully reusable, an approach that Musk passionately advocates as being the only way forward to slashing the cost of spaceflight.
Until yesterday, SpaceX had not performed a flight from their Boca Chica facility since its squat, smaller-scale Starship test vehicle – Starhopper – hopped to 150 meters in August, 2019.
Since then, the Starships (Mk1, SN1, SN3, SN4) have suffered a series of setbacks, including pressurisation or engine-firing test problems – SN4 exploded after large amounts of leaking propellant ignited – delayed the 150-meter hop test by several months.
However, all seemed back on track yesterday as the SN5 test flight, which saw the stainless steel ship take flight for around 40 seconds, was reported as being even smoother than Starhoppers.
"And when the smoke cleared, she stood there majestically, after the 150 meter flight!" tweeted NASA's top scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen.
SN5’s success now clears the way for SpaceX to attempt higher altitude flights with Starship prototypes - tests that could begin in the coming days and weeks.
"We’ll do several short hops to smooth out launch process, then go high altitude with body flaps," Musk said in another tweet today.
SpaceX are already building a new Starship – SN8 – out of an entirely different steel alloy designed to make the rockets even sturdier than they already are, says Eric Ralph at Teslarati.
SN8 is expected to feature three Raptor engines, a nose cone, and aero surfaces; these latter two components were missing on SN5.