The most powerful rocket ever built went further than ever and then was lost

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SpaceX’s massive deep-space rocket system, Starship, lifted off safely Saturday morning, but ended prematurely with an explosion and a loss of signal.

The Super Heavy booster and the Starship spacecraft successfully separated after liftoff, as the Starship fired its engines and pulled away. That process ended up destroying the Super Heavy booster, which exploded in a ball of flames over the Gulf of Mexico. But the Starship spacecraft was able to briefly continue its journey.

The Starship system managed to fly much further than the first attempt in April. The rocket and spacecraft lifted off from the launch pad at 8 a.m. ET, and the Super Heavy booster ignited its 33 Raptor engines. Even during ground testing, SpaceX has had difficulty getting all of those engines, clustered at the base of the rocket, to fire consistently at the same time.

Starship’s upper stage had begun its journey Saturday morning strapped to the top of the Super Heavy first stage, a 232-foot-tall (70.7-meter-tall) rocket. About two and a half minutes after coming to life and jumping off the launch pad, the Super Heavy booster expended most of its fuel, and the Starship spacecraft ignited its own engines and separated.

The Starship spacecraft used its own six engines to continue propelling itself at faster speeds. SpaceX aimed to send the spacecraft at near-orbital speeds, typically around 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour). The spacecraft ascended to an altitude of about 150 kilometers (93 miles) above the Earth’s surface, reaching the edge of space.

The US government considers 80 kilometers (50 miles) above the Earth’s surface to be the edge of outer space. Internationally, the Kármán line, located 100 kilometers (62 miles) above sea level, is often used to mark the boundary between our planet and space, but there are many gray areas.

SpaceX's Starship launches on its second test flight from the Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday morning.  The rocket booster and then the spacecraft were lost shortly after liftoff.  -Eric Gay/AP

SpaceX’s Starship launches on its second test flight from the Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday morning. The rocket booster and then the spacecraft were lost shortly after liftoff. -Eric Gay/AP

The SpaceX team waited for the spacecraft’s signal acquisition, but during the live broadcast shared that the “second stage was lost.”

“The automated flight termination system on the second stage appears to have been activated very late in the fire as we were heading toward the Gulf of Mexico,” said aerospace engineer John Insprucker.

The flight termination system is essentially a self-destruct function that SpaceX activated to prevent Starship from veering off course.

“The booster underwent rapid unscheduled disassembly shortly after stage separation while Starship’s engines ran for several minutes on their way to space.” SpaceX shared 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 multiplanetary.”

The Federal Aviation Administration, which authorized the Starship test flight today, issued a statement after the test flight.

“A mishap occurred during the launch of SpaceX Starship OFT-2 from Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, November 18. The anomaly resulted in the loss of the vehicle. “No injuries or damage to public property have been reported,” according to an FAA spokesperson.

The agency will conduct a mishap investigation to determine the root cause of Starship’s loss, which is standard procedure.

“The return to flight of the Starship Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA determining that any system, process or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety,” according to the FAA.

It took more than four months for the FAA to complete the latest investigation into the mishap after Starship’s test flight in April.

Starship breaks the sound barrier during its launch.  -Eric Gay/APStarship breaks the sound barrier during its launch.  -Eric Gay/AP

Starship breaks the sound barrier during its launch. -Eric Gay/AP

Starship Targets

NASA is investing up to $4 billion in the rocket system with the goal of using the Starship capsule to transport astronauts to the lunar surface for its Artemis III mission, currently scheduled to lift off in 2025.

The goal of the effort is to land humans on the moon for the first time in five decades, and the successful completion of this test flight would have brought the US space agency and SpaceX one step closer to that goal.

“Congratulations to the teams that made progress in today’s flight test.” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared on X. “Space flight is a bold adventure that requires a positive spirit and bold innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn and then fly again. “Together @NASA and @SpaceX will return humanity to the Moon, Mars and beyond.”

“Each test represents one more step towards putting the first woman on the Moon with the #Sagebrush III Starship Human Landing System. We look forward to seeing what can be learned from this test that brings us closer to the next milestone,” said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development. shared on X.

The ruling could mean significant delays for the development of Starship and the key missions lined up in its manifesto, particularly NASA’s Artemis III mission. The US space agency chose Starship in 2021 to serve as the lunar lander for that mission.

‘Hot staging’ process

The root cause of the Starship rocket failure on Saturday was not immediately clear.

But the booster explosion came after a phase called “hot staging” that SpaceX first attempted on Saturday.

The method was used to separate the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy rocket after liftoff.

Almost all rockets go through a process during launch called “stage separation,” in which the lowermost rocket booster diverges from the rest of the rocket or spacecraft.

When SpaceX launches its Falcon 9 rocket, its workhorse, for example the first stage booster, or the bottommost part of the rocket, separates from the top of the rocket in less than three minutes of flight. The Falcon 9 does this using pneumatic pushers that are housed within the rocket’s midstage, or black band around the center.

Instead, the Starship spacecraft fired its own engines to move away from the Super Heavy booster, and this is essentially a separation from blunt force trauma.

It marked a pivotal moment for SpaceX, as hot staging was expected to be “the riskiest part of the flight,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in October.

SpaceX had already said it would consider the mission a success if Starship made it past the preparation stage.

But after intense staging, the Super Heavy booster began to fall out of control and exploded over the Gulf of Mexico moments later. SpaceX hoped to revive the Super Heavy’s engines and guide it toward a controlled landing.

“We knew the staging was going to be incredibly dynamic,” said Kate Tice, senior manager of Quality Systems Engineering at SpaceX, during the livestream. “We knew there was a chance that the booster wouldn’t survive, but we’ll take that data and figure out how we can improve the booster for the next hot stage.”

Initially, the Starship spacecraft continued moving after separation.

Approximately eight minutes after liftoff, cheers could be heard echoing throughout mission control as the Starship approached the end of its engine run, setting it on a path toward Earth orbit. But nine minutes after launch, SpaceX made it clear that it lost the video signal with Starship.

And about 11.5 minutes into the flight, the company confirmed that it had lost data, indicating that Starship was not flying as planned. The spacecraft’s flight termination system was then activated to prevent it from deviating from its course, bringing an early end to the test flight.

If everything had gone according to plan, Starship would have continued accelerating into space. The Starship spacecraft was then scheduled to complete almost a full orbit around Earth, aiming to land in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

The destruction of the vehicle shortly after liftoff was reminiscent of the Starship’s first launch attempt in April. During that test flight, several of the Super Heavy’s engines shut down unexpectedly and the rocket began to spin out of control just minutes after liftoff. SpaceX was forced to activate the system’s self-destruct function, exploding both stages over the Gulf of Mexico.

It took SpaceX several months to recover from the April mishap. The company was forced to rebuild its launch site, which had been destroyed by the force of the rocket powering its engines. The company also implemented improvements to both the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy booster.

SpaceX often suffers major setbacks in the early stages of rocket development. The company has long maintained that it can learn how to build a better rocket more quickly and cheaply by flying (and occasionally blowing up) early prototypes rather than relying solely on ground testing and computer modeling.

After April’s explosive first test flight, SpaceX noted that “success comes from what we learn, and we learned a lot.”

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