SpaceX brings Starship rocket back to Earth safely for first time

The progress was crucial for SpaceX, which is contracted by Nasa to land humans on the Moon

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SpaceX's fourth test flight of its deep-space rocket Starship was its most successful so far, with the booster and spacecraft sent to space and brought back safely.

Starship, a powerful rocket being developed to carry humans to the Moon and Mars, took off from Boca Chica beach in Brownsville, Texas, just before 5pm on Thursday.

SpaceX achieved several milestones in this launch, including the successful splashdown of the Super Heavy Booster in the Indian Ocean just after 5pm, as well as a re-entry and splashdown of the Starship spacecraft.

“Congratulations SpaceX on Starship's successful test flight this morning!” Nasa administrator Bill Nelson posted on X shortly after the soft touchdown.

“We are another step closer to returning humanity to the Moon through Artemis – then looking onward to Mars.”

The progress was crucial for the company, which has been trying to develop the powerful rocket for many years.

It has a $2.89 billion contract with Nasa that involves using Starship for the Artemis 3 mission, aimed at taking astronauts to the Moon in 2026.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa had purchased seats as part of his dearMoon project, in which he would have taken eight artists around the Moon with him.

But, last week, he announced that he was cancelling the project, saying he thought Starship would be launch-ready by 2023.

Ship survives re-entry

In the previous test, the Starship spacecraft reached orbit for the first time, but failed to complete a splashdown.

This time, however, the craft survived re-entry, despite experiencing temperatures of 1,400°C.

The live broadcast by SpaceX, which was watched by more than 2 million people, showed that the craft was being torn apart by the plasma of the planet.

“It's holding on by bolts and threads,” the narrator said during the stream.

The spacecraft still managed to carry out a landing burn and perform a soft touchdown in the Indian Ocean.

The booster also carried out a successful flip manoeuvre, in which it turned the other way around so it could perform a landing burn, before splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico.

While a splashdown of the booster was intentional during the test flight, it is hoped the booster will one-day carry out a surface landing so it can be reusable.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is also working with US billionaire Jared Isaacman, who is leading the Polaris programme, on a series of privately led space missions aboard Falcon 9 and Starship.

Updated: June 06, 2024, 5:03 PM