SpaceX successfully launched Starship, the world’s most powerful rocket, for the first time – before disappearing.
The Starship successfully lifted off from its launch pad and separated from the lower stage that was supposed to take it nearly to orbit. But when it reached the end of the engine burn, the spacecraft’s signal disappeared, before exploding.
The spacecraft lifted off from Texas on Saturday morning local time. It marked SpaceX’s second attempt to launch Starship, after a previous test in April saw the rocket explode shortly after launch.
The booster carrying the spacecraft toward orbit exploded after separating from the main spacecraft. SpaceX said it knew there was a chance the booster could be destroyed at launch.
The main part of the ship successfully reached space and initially appeared to be doing so safely. Minutes later, however, the Starship signal disappeared.
The company said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter: “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary.” .
Eventually, SpaceX hopes Starship will fly to the Moon and help with missions to Mars. But first it must go through a series of unscrewing tests to ensure it is safe.
Elon Musk — SpaceX’s founder, chief executive and chief engineer — also sees Starship as eventually replacing the company’s Falcon 9 rocket as the centerpiece of its launch business that already carries the majority of the world’s satellites and other commercial payloads. into space.
NASA, SpaceX’s main customer, has a considerable interest in the success of Starship, which the US space agency is counting on to play a central role in its Artemis human spaceflight program, successor to the more than half-century-old Apollo missions. ago that put astronauts on the Moon for the first time.
The American space agency congratulated the team on the launch. NASA chief Bill Nelson wrote in X: “Spaceflight is a bold adventure that requires an entrepreneurial spirit and bold innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn and then fly again.”
Starship’s towering first-stage booster, powered by 33 Raptor engines, puts the total height of the rocket system at about 400 feet (122 meters) and produces a thrust twice as powerful as the Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts from Apollo to the Moon.
SpaceX aimed to at least outperform Starship-Super Heavy during its April 20 test flight, when the two-stage spacecraft blew itself to pieces less than four minutes into a planned 90-minute flight.
This flight went wrong from the start. SpaceX acknowledged that some of the Super Heavy’s 33 Raptor engines did not function properly during ascent and that the lower stage booster rocket was unable to separate as designed from the upper stage Starship before the flight was terminated.
The company’s engineering culture, considered more risk tolerant than many of the aerospace industry’s more established players, is based on a flight testing strategy that takes spacecraft to the point of failure and then fine-tunes improvements through of frequent repetition.
A failure at any point in the test flight would be a major concern for NASA, which is counting on SpaceX’s spirit of rapid rocket development to quickly get humans to the Moon as the U.S. competes with China’s lunar ambitions.
Judging the success or failure of the outcome may be unclear at all, depending on how far the spacecraft gets this time. NASA’s Nelson, who has made rivalry with China a fundamental need for speed, compared the Starship testing campaign to the success of SpaceX’s previous rocket development efforts.
“How did they develop the Falcon 9? They went through a lot of testing, sometimes it exploded,” Nelson told Reuters on Tuesday. “They would figure out what went wrong, fix it, and then come back.”
The combined spacecraft in April reached a maximum altitude of about 25 miles (40 km), just halfway into space at the target altitude of 90 miles (150 km), before bursting into flames.
Musk said that an internal fire during the Starship’s ascent damaged its engines and computers, causing it to veer off course, and that an auto-destruct command was activated about 40 seconds later than it was supposed to to blow up the rocket.
The launch pad itself was destroyed by the force of the detonation, which also sparked a wildfire across 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares). Nobody was injured. SpaceX has since reinforced the launch pad with a massive water-cooled steel plate, one of dozens of corrective actions the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration required before granting a launch license on Wednesday for the second flight. of test.
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