SpaceX's Starhopper prototype comes down for a landing during its fourth and final test jump, August 27, 201
9.  (Image credit: Elon Musk via Twitter)
A beautiful image shows SpaceX's Starhopper vehicle returning to Earth for the last time.
Starhopper, an early test prototype of SpaceX's Mars-colonizing Starship spacecraft, flew high into the sky in South Texas yesterday (August 27), after its fourth and final test jaunt . One minute flight, Starhopper took several hundred meters up and contained a lateral translation to a landing plate a short distance away.
The new image, which SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk posted on Twitter yesterday afternoon, catches Starhopper just before the touchdown. Dust kicked up by the descent waves around the vehicle, and a flame column extends from Starhopper's only Raptor engine down the landing pad.
The moment apparently set Musk. "One day Starship will land on the rusty sand of Mars," he wrote in the Twitter post .
Related: SpaceX's Starship and Super Heavy Mars Rocket in Pictures
Yesterday's flight brings the future milestone a little closer. Starhopper has proven its mettle and will now be turned into a Raptor test stand, Musk said. The next test flights will reach Earth's orbit and will be performed by advanced prototypes known as Starship Mk1 and Mk2.
Mk1 is being built at SpaceX's facility in Boca Chica, the site that has hosted Starhopper for the sky. Mk2 comes together on Florida's space coast. The idea is to improve the design of the final 100-passenger Starship by spurring some competition within companies, Musk has said.
Both Mk1 and Mk2 will sport at least three Raptors. The operative Starship will have six engines, and the Super Heavy rocket to shoot the spacecraft from Earth will be powered by 35 Raptors, Musk said. (However, those numbers may change; the billionaire entrepreneur has promised a Starship design update soon.)
If all goes according to plan, Starship and Super Heavy could start launching satellites as early as 2021 and start flying people just two years later. In fact, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has ordered a Starship flight around the moon that is currently targeting 2023.
Starhopper's first two hops took place in early April. On both occasions, the vehicle was bound for safety and barely got off the ground. Starhopper was released for the first time on July 25, when the stubby prototype rose high on a flight with a maximum expected altitude of 20 meters. Yesterday's flight had a ceiling of 150m, a limit imposed by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
Mike Wall's book on the quest for alien life, " Out There " (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate ) is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall . Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook .