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Explained: Why SpaceX’s Starship landing bodes well for NASA’s Moon mission

The spacecraft has been described as a game-changer for space travel, being a fully reusable transportation system for crew and cargo to the Earth's orbit, Moon and Mars.

SpaceX SN15 starship prototype liftoffs from the company's starship facility in Boca Chica, Texas, U.S. May 5, 2021. (Reuters Photo: Gene Blevins)

Serial number 15 (SN15), a prototype of the futuristic Starship rocket developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, was able to launch and successfully land on Wednesday, heralding a new era in space exploration for NASA.

The spacecraft has been described as a game-changer for space travel, being a fully reusable transportation system for crew and cargo to the Earth’s orbit, Moon and Mars.

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The successful landing on Wednesday is a relief for NASA and SpaceX, as four previous prototypes of Starship had failed to do so, getting destroyed during or soon after touchdown at the southeastern tip of Texas, near Brownsville. The SN15 did not run into such problems.

This latest upgraded version of SpaceX’s full-scale, stainless steel, bullet-shaped rocketship soared more than six miles (10 kilometres) over the Gulf of Mexico before flipping and descending horizontally, and then going vertical again just in time for touchdown.

A fire at the base of the 160-foot (50-metre) rocket was quickly extinguished, and the rocket remained standing after the six-minute flight.

What is the Starship?

Designed by SpaceX, Starship is a spacecraft and super-heavy booster rocket meant to act as a reusable transportation system for crew and cargo to the Earth’s orbit, Moon and Mars. SpaceX has described Starship as “the world’s most powerful launch vehicle” with an ability to carry over 100 metric tonnes to the Earth’s orbit.

Starship has been under development since 2012 and is a part of Space X’s central mission to make interplanetary travel accessible and affordable and to become the first private company to do so. Therefore, the company is working on building a fleet of reusable launch vehicles, capable of carrying humans to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.

Starship is a spacecraft and super-heavy booster rocket. (Reuters Photo: Gene Blevins)

Reusability is at the heart of making interplanetary travel accessible, SpaceX believes, since a majority of the launch cost is attributed to the expense of building a rocket that is ultimately designed to burn up during re-entry. “Following the commercial model, a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle could reduce the cost of travelling to space by a hundredfold,” SpaceX mentions on its website.

What is it capable of doing?

In time to come, the Starship system is expected to replace SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon rockets that are currently operational.

Starship can deliver satellites further and at lower marginal costs than Falcon vehicles and it can ferry both cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Once developed, Starship is also expected to help carry large amounts of cargo to the Moon, for human spaceflight development and research. Beyond the Moon, the spacecraft is being designed for carrying crew and cargo for interplanetary missions as well.

A SpaceX SN15 starship prototype is seen as it sits on a transporter after Wednesday’s successful launch and first landing from the company’s starship facility, in Boca Chica, Texas, U.S. May 6, 2021. (Reuters Photo: Gene Blevins)

The Starship spacecraft is expected to enter Mars’s atmosphere at a speed of 7.5 km per second and will be designed to withstand multiple entries. While no human being has set foot on Mars yet, the planet continues to intrigue scientists and researchers because of the possibility that life existed there once. SpaceX is planning its first cargo mission to the red planet by 2022 and by 2024, the company wants to fly four ships including two cargo and two crewed ones to Mars.

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What is NASA’s Artemis mission?

Last month, NASA chose SpaceX to build a lander for its Artemis programme, which plans to send humans to the Moon in this decade. SpaceX won the $2.89 billion contract in a bidding war against traditional space giants, Amazon and Dynetics.

The vehicle, which is based on Starship, will carry the next man and the first woman to land on the Moon. The Artemis programme, initiated by the administration of former President Donald Trump, planned to do this in 2024, but the plans were postponed because of a shortfall in funding.

With the Artemis programme, NASA aims to demonstrate new technologies, capabilities and business approaches that will ultimately be needed for the future exploration of Mars.

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