SpaceX launched its second Starship rocket flight on Saturday, with Elon Musk’s company pushing the development of the giant vehicle past new milestones.
Starship lifted off from the company’s plant in Texas around 8 a.m. ET and flew for more than seven minutes, successfully detaching from its booster before the rocket’s onboard system deliberately destroyed the vehicle in flight.
There were no people on board the test flight.
“We lost the data from the second stage… what we now believe is that the Automated Flight Termination System appears to have activated very late in the fire in the second stage,” said John Insprucker, SpaceX’s chief integration engineer. on the company’s webcast.
SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket lifts off from the company’s Boca Chica launch pad for an unmanned test flight, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S., November 18, 2023.
Joe Schipper | Reuters
The flight termination system is a standard safety feature in missiles because it destroys the vehicle if a problem occurs or it flies off course. On SpaceX’s webcast, Starship appears to have detonated at an altitude of about 148 kilometers (or about 485,000 feet). That’s just under half the altitude at which the International Space Station orbits the Earth.
The deliberate destruction of Starship marks a premature end to the flight test, as SpaceX planned to fly most of the way around Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii.
“An incredibly successful day, even though we had a ‘rapid, unplanned disassembly’ of both the Super Heavy booster and the ship,” Kate Tice, SpaceX quality manager, said on the webcast.
The Federal Aviation Administration has confirmed that it will oversee an “accident” investigation into the flight, a standard regulatory procedure, before SpaceX can launch a new Starship rocket.
Accident investigations are the FAA’s way of analyzing the cause of a failed rocket launch, especially when a vehicle is destroyed. The regulator may issue SpaceX corrective actions that must be completed before the company can receive a license for future Starship launches. The FAA said in a statement after the launch that “no injuries or damage to public property were reported.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the company for making “progress on today’s flight test.”
“Spaceflight is a daring adventure that requires a can-do attitude and bold innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn and then fly again,” Nelson said in a social media post.
The FAA cleared SpaceX for the second launch earlier this week.
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SpaceX launched its first full Starship rocket system in April. Although that flight did not reach space, it successfully achieved several historic firsts for an experimental rocket of unprecedented size. The destruction of the missile in the air, as well as an investigation into damage done on the ground, led to a regulatory review that lasted almost seven months.
The launch attempt follows renewed backlash against SpaceX CEO Elon Musk over comments he made online. The White House on Friday condemned what it called “abhorrent promotion of anti-Semitic and racist hatred” by Musk on his social media platform
Starship is both the tallest and most powerful rocket ever launched. Fully stacked on the Super Heavy booster, the Starship is 120 meters high and has a diameter of approximately 9 meters.
The Super Heavy booster, which is 70 meters high, marks the start of the rocket’s journey to space. At its base are 33 Raptor engines, which together produce 16.7 million pounds of thrust – about double the 8.8 million pounds of thrust of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which debuted late last year launched.
The spaceship itself, which is 50 meters tall, has six Raptor engines: three for use in Earth’s atmosphere and three for use in the vacuum of space.
The rocket is powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane. The entire system requires more than 10 million pounds of propellant for launch.
The Starship system is designed to be completely reusable and aims to become a new method of flying cargo and people beyond Earth. The rocket is also crucial to NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon. SpaceX has won a multibillion-dollar contract from the agency to use Starship as a crewed lunar lander as part of NASA’s Artemis moon program.
Musk previously said he expects the company to spend about $2 billion on Starship development this year.
Goals for the second flight
There were no humans aboard this attempt to reach space with Starship. Company leadership has previously emphasized that SpaceX expects to fly hundreds of Starship missions before launching the rocket with any crew.
SpaceX aimed to surpass the nearly four-minute flight of the first launch, reach space with Saturday’s attempt and demonstrate that improvements to ground infrastructure would mitigate the damage caused by the debut attempt.
During the April launch, SpaceX fired up only 30 of the 33 Raptor engines at the base of the Super Heavy booster. Other engines were lost mid-flight. In addition, a communications problem led to an unexpected delay in activating the missile’s Autonomous Flight Termination System, which destroys the vehicle if it flies off course.
SpaceX introduced upgrades to the launch pad infrastructure and the design of the rocket itself for the second attempt.