SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas – SpaceX’s massive starship has reached another explosive end.
SpaceX’s next-generation megarocket – the largest ever built – launched on its second-ever test flight today (November 18), a much-anticipated bucket that took the massive vehicle into space for the first time, but it didn’t last long. Shortly after stage separation, the rocket’s massive Super Heavy booster exploded, and the Starship advanced stage vehicle itself detonated before reaching the target altitude, in what SpaceX called an “unscheduled rapid disassembly”.
“What we believe right now is that the automated flight termination system on the second stage appears to have engaged very late in the burn, as we were descending over the Gulf of Mexico,” a said John Insprucker, SpaceX’s chief integration engineer, during a live webcast today.
The massive Starship and Super Heavy booster took off today at approximately 8 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT; 7 Texas local time) from SpaceX’s Starbase test and manufacturing facility in Boca Chica.
Just north of Boca Chica, here on South Padre Island, hundreds of spectators gathered this morning to watch the launch. They cheered as the orange light from the Starship’s 33 Raptor first-stage engines flashed through the exhaust plume as the massive rocket advanced. Standing nearly 400 feet (122 meters) tall, Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, and can be seen for miles when stacked and parked at the Starbase launch pad.
Related: See amazing photos and videos of Starship’s 2nd launch
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This was the second test flight for the fully integrated Starship, which consists of the Super Heavy first stage booster and Starship advanced stage spacecraft. The first promotion, which took place on April 20 of this year, did not go as well as this one. The April Starship launch ended with a self-destruct command about four minutes into flight, turning the tumbling rocket into a smoldering fireball.
One reason for the unscheduled April dismantling was the failure of the two Starship stages to separate. To prevent this problem from happening again on the second flight, SpaceX decided to go with a new strategy: “hot staging,” in which the engines of the upper stage start firing before Starship and Super Heavy are completely separated. This is not a new concept; it was used on vehicles such as the Titan II from NASA’s Gemini program in the 1960s and Russia’s venerable Soyuz rocket, which is still in service.
Starship’s stage separation occurred on time today, about 2 minutes and 41 seconds after takeoff, and appeared to go smoothly, but the Super Heavy booster exploded shortly thereafter.
“We’re going to take that data and improve the hot stage sequence and probably improve the hardware itself for the next flight,” SpaceX quality engineering manager Kate Tice said during the live webcast. SpaceX hoped to soft land the Super Heavy in the Gulf of Mexico to test re-entry and landing processes.
Related: NASA chief congratulates SpaceX on second Starship launch test
The Starship upper stage continued to fly for a short time after stage separation. SpaceX hoped to establish signal reception with the spacecraft at its target altitude of about 150 miles (250 kilometers). But telemetry from the vehicle was lost about eight minutes after liftoff, nearing the end of its own burn after phase separation, with SpaceX mission managers, including CEO and founder Elon Musk, anxiously awaiting updates in a live webcast .
The spacecraft was never expected to reach full orbit around Earth, instead flying on a sub-orbital trajectory to splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii. “We’re not targeting orbit today; we’re targeting near-orbit,” said Siva Bharadvaj, SpaceX operations engineer, adding that the goal is to “get a thrust profile similar to what we would need for orbit, but also energy. the level the ship would have to dissipate for re-entry.”
It’s not for nothing that Starship’s second test mission flew longer and higher than its first test flight on April 20, which failed phase separation and exploded. So SpaceX still considered the second test a success. The final telemetry signal from today’s launch put Starship’s altitude at 148 kilometers, or 91 miles, well above the 62 mile (100 km) space limit.
“Honestly, it’s been a very successful day even though we had an unscheduled quick disassembly of the Super Heavy booster and the Ship,” said Tice. “That’s great. We got so much data, and that will help us improve our next flight.”
SpaceX and the crowds of onlookers here on South Padre Island weren’t the only ones cheering on Starship today. Many are calling SpaceX’s new rocket a success, including the timeline for returning NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon.
For example, the space agency chose Starship as the lunar lander for its Artemis 3 mission, which is scheduled to carry astronauts to the moon in late 2025 or early 2026. And SpaceX’s plans for the giant rocket extend well beyond that. than the moon.
Related: Facts about NASA’s Artemis program.
— Starship and Super Heavy: SpaceX’s transportation system on Mars
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— SpaceX delays second Starship test launch to Nov. 18 to replace rocket section
When Musk first introduced the Starship concept, he called it the Mars Colony Carrier. When he released details about the system at the International Astronomical Conference in September 2016, he announced a new name: the Interplanetary Transport System.
As these former monikers show, the new spacecraft is designed to help humanity become an interplanetary species—a long-held dream of Musk’s. Although the timeline seems to shift continuously from year to year, the billionaire entrepreneur envisions Starship as a vehicle that will allow humanity to establish a sustainable, permanent presence off Earth.
The breakthrough that could do that is Starship reusability. The new system represents the next evolutionary step beyond SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is now routinely launched with previously flown boosters. However, only the Falcon 9’s stage and payload fairings are reusable – and it usually takes at least a few weeks to re-use. The second stage of the Falcon 9 is not reusable and is disposed of after each flight.
A starship, on the other hand, is designed to be completely and quickly reusable. The rocket’s launch tower has two giant “chopstick” arms designed to catch a Super Heavy as it returns to the launch pad for landing, and also to stack a landing starship back onto a Super Heavy for takeoff.
Today’s Starship launch was expected to increase the launch end of a new vehicle, as further refined designs make their way to the launch pad at Starbase. Currently, Starship’s test iterations do not include any of the cabin or life support components needed to carry payload or hold a crew, but SpaceX is betting big on the rocket’s success. However, SpaceX will have to investigate the reasons for the dismantling of today’s Starship, and take measures to prevent the same thing from happening again in the future.
Infrastructure to support Starship launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida has been in place for the past few years, and SpaceX plans to use their facilities at KSC once Starship is flying regularly. A Starship launch tower has been constructed at Launch Complex-39A (LC-39A) at KSC, and a crew access arm has been added to the tower at LC-41 to support Falcon 9 crew launches from multiple pads once Starship moves to the Cape.
Moving forward, SpaceX could aim to fly Starship test missions as often as once a month, which, if maintained, would go a long way toward certifying the vehicle for crewed launches in time for Artemis 3. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has been launched more than once. per week, on average, in recent years, and the goal has always been to reach a higher end for the company’s new launch vehicle.
As Starship has progressed through its development stages, Musk has touted the vehicle’s potential for rapid reusability, and hopes to launch, land and relaunch the same vehicles multiple times a day, and possibly hundreds of Starship launches each week.