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SpaceX Starship Nears Orbit, But Is Lost Before Return to Earth

SpaceX Starship Nears Orbit, But Is Lost Before Return to Earth
'To the Moon'. A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket transits the moon carrying the X-37B space plane into orbit. Shockwaves from the rocket cause a ripple effect across the moon. Image: © Pascal Fouquet, United States, Winner, National Awards, Sony World Photography Awards 2024

SpaceX launched its Starship rocket into space in a critical test, sending the colossal craft farther and faster than it had ever flown before it was lost while returning to Earth.

The mission, which featured several key demonstrations of the craft’s capabilities, was a notable improvement on the past two attempts, which each ended quickly in explosions. The achievement brings the company a step closer to using Starship to launch satellites and eventually reaching Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk’s goal of ferrying humans to the moon and Mars.

Despite early concerns about possible high winds, Starship lifted off around 8:25 a.m. local time Thursday from the company’s Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. The craft successfully separated from its Super Heavy booster as planned and reached near-orbit in space, surpassing the length of its prior two test missions.

Around an hour into the mission, live footage streamed on Musk’s X social media platform showed Starship’s external hardware glowing bright red as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere, setting off a round of cheers and applause from SpaceX employees at its headquarters in Hawthorne, California. But shortly after, SpaceX said it lost signal connection with Starship and later confirmed the vehicle was “lost” — likely destroyed — as it plummeted back to Earth, cutting the mission short.

The Federal Aviation Administration will oversee a company-led investigation after a “mishap occurred” during the launch involving Starship and its booster. The agency, which has overseen similar investigations after each launch, said in a statement that no public injuries or public property damage was reported.

Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever developed, taller than the Saturn V that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon. The company already has a contract with NASA to carry people on Starship to the moon. Once fully operational, the craft will also be able to haul massive amounts of cargo and launch the company’s much larger Starlink internet satellites.

Each of the prior launches — the first in April 2023 and second in November — ended with Starship blowing up. The more recent flight lasted about eight minutes — just long enough to reach space but not reach orbital speeds. That was about twice as long as the first attempt, which significantly damaged the launchpad.

The closely held aerospace company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., doesn’t typically view in-flight failures during a rocket’s development as major setbacks, but rather learning moments that help develop its vehicles further.

Gwynne Shotwell

@Gwynne_Shotwell

Happy birthday to @SpaceX! What a day!

HUGE congratulations to the entire team for this incredible day: clean count (glad the shrimpers could get out in the nick of time!), liftoff, hot staging, Super Heavy boost back and coast (and likely a couple engines making mainstage…

Sent via Twitter Web App.

View original tweet.

While Thursday’s mission appeared to be a significant improvement on prior tests, it wasn’t without some snags before the loss of the craft. SpaceX said the booster, which was supposed to have a soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, came down harder than expected after seeming to lose control.

During the livestream of the flight, Starship’s camera appeared to show it rolling in space at various times. And during reentry, debris could be seen falling away from the spacecraft.

SpaceX also skipped eagerly awaited plans to reignite Starship’s Raptor engines in space. But company employees on the livestream said controllers had commanded Starship’s cargo bay door to open and close, which will be needed to deploy satellites in the future, and also attempted to transfer super cold propellant between tanks — a critical technical feat central to its ability to get to the moon. Webcast announcers said it was too early to determine whether the extent these tests were successful.

SpaceX still has a long way to go until people can take trips to deep space and other worlds. Those items include figuring out life support systems, how to refuel Starship in orbit and how to land the spacecraft in one piece.

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