The Starship SN10, on ascent.

By  Brad Bergan

Appearances can be deceiving.

In a bizarre turn of events, SpaceX just rolled its newest Starship, SN16, from its Boca Chica, Texas factory directly to the nearby “rocket garden,” where the private aerospace firm retires its Mars-vehicle prototypes. But appearances can deceive: Soon after industry experts made their peace with SN16, CEO Elon Musk tweeted that no, this was not the case, at all.

SpaceX’s Starship SN16 could forge the way for its first orbital flight

“We might use SN16 on a hypersonic flight test,” tweeted Elon Musk. This means the success of SN15 may soon be bested by its next-of-kin, reaching the hypersonic speeds expected when a SpaceX Starship makes its first orbital flight. The Starship SN16 was built as the first of numerous backup vehicles for Starship SN15, which features several substantial upgrades in April and May, and was moved to the rocket garden after its successful launch and first successful landing for the company. When SN16 was moved to its side, it seemed the new rocket’s fate might be sealed, to become part of an open-air rocket museum for SpaceX vehicles.

When Starship SN15 made its landing without exploding (like earlier ones) after an impressive 6.2-mile (10-km) flight in May, suspicions arose surrounding what would happen to Starship SN16. It seemed logical for SpaceX to want a duplication of its SN15 success, especially since the last four Starship launches did not end well. This could have made SN16 proof that its predecessor was no fluke. But it seems Elon Musk’s aerospace firm may have other plans for the newest mars vehicle prototype.

SpaceX aims to make its first orbital flight with Starship later this year

If Starship SN16 makes a hypersonic flight, it would set the stage for a forthcoming orbital flight, which could happen later this year. The first orbital flight of a SpaceX Starship will lift off from Boca Chica, Texas, fly around the world without a crew, and then make a splashdown near the coast of Hawaii, according to a document SpaceX filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in May. This will involve a super-heavy booster stage capable of lifting the Starship prototype proper into the air, and then separate roughly three minutes post-liftoff. Once five more minutes have elapsed, the booster stage will splash down in the Gulf of Mexico, or “perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore,” according to a SpaceX statement reported in The Verge.

Afterward, the Starship will make its singular orbit of Earth before making a Hawaiian splash down roughly 90 minutes after rocketing away from Boca Chica. But this splashdown will be powered, and aim for a precision ocean landing roughly 62 miles northwest of Kauai, the northernmost island in the state. We don’t know if Starship SN16 will be used for this or another flight. Presumably, it will be used to test systems and procedures for another, later prototype iteration to make the orbital flight. Elon Musk has made bold claims before, so we shouldn’t count on Starship SN16 living up to his suggestions on Twitter. But if it does, it could also be the first reusable spaceship designed to land on Mars to make an orbital flight, whether or not it’s the inaugurating one.