BOCA CHICA: SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket achieved its first ever splashdown during a test flight on Thursday, in a major milestone for the prototype system that may one day send humans to Mars.

Scraps of fiery debris came flying off the spaceship as it descended over the Indian Ocean northwest of Australia, dramatic video from an onboard camera showed, but it ultimately held together and survived atmospheric reentry.

“Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote on X. “Today was a great day for humanity’s future as a spacefaring civilisation!” he added.

The most powerful rocket ever built blasted off from the company’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, at 7:50am (1250 GMT), before soaring to space and coasting halfway across the globe, for a journey that lasted around an hour and five minutes. With its fully reusable design, Starship is essential to fulfilling Musk’s ambitious vision of colonizing the Red Planet and making humankind an multiplanetary species. Nasa meanwhile has contracted a modified version to act as the final vehicle that will take astronauts down to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis programme later this decade.

Three previous test flights had ended in Starship’s destruction, all part of what the company says is an acceptable cost in its rapid trial-and-error approach to development. “The payload for these flight tests is data,” SpaceX said on X, a mantra repeated by the commentary team throughout the flight.

During the last test in March, the spaceship managed to fly for 49 minutes before it was lost as it careened into the atmosphere at around 27,000 kilometers per hour (nearly 17,000 mph). Since then SpaceX made several software and hardware upgrades.

Around seven minutes after liftoff, the first stage booster, called Super Heavy, succeeded in an upright splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, to massive applause from engineers at mission control in Haw­thorne, California.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2024

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