Sunday, April 21, 2024

SpaceX’s Starship Rocket Destroyed During Dramatic Test Flight Return

HomeTechSpaceX's Starship Rocket Destroyed During Dramatic Test Flight Return

BOCA CHICA, Texas — In a dramatic climax to an ambitious test mission, SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket was destroyed on Thursday as it attempted to return to Earth after soaring higher than ever before.

The uncrewed Starship completed multiple key objectives during its third test launch from SpaceX’s facility near the Gulf Coast in Texas. However, the spacecraft met a fiery demise when it lost communications and disintegrated during atmospheric re-entry at hypersonic speeds on its way to a planned ocean splashdown.

Despite the unsuccessful landing, the largely successful test flight marked a major milestone for Starship and its development towards SpaceX’s goals of ferrying cargo and humans to the Moon and eventually Mars. The towering two-stage launch vehicle reached a peak altitude of 145 miles above Earth — far surpassing the company’s two previous Starship test flights that ended in explosions minutes after liftoff.

“We did have some incredible successes today,” said SpaceX engineer John Insprucker during a livestream of the mission. “With that said, we are still awaiting data from the spacecraft to determine what caused the loss of signal and vehicle demise.”

The approximately 395-foot-tall Starship consisted of the 165-foot upper stage spacecraft mounted atop SpaceX’s newly developed 230-foot Super Heavy booster rocket. The massive vehicle thundered off its launch pad at 8:33 a.m. local time, climbing vertically against partly cloudy skies with 33 million pounds of thrust.

About three minutes into flight, the Super Heavy detached from the Starship vehicle and began an arcing return trajectory intended to guide it to a vertical landing back at Starbase. However, in a decision made shortly before liftoff, SpaceX scrubbed an attempt to recover the booster, electing instead to allow it to ditch into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Meanwhile, the Starship spacecraft continued powering its way up into the rarefied atmosphere with its six operational Raptor engines. After shutting down the engines on the final ascent, the craft coasted up to a peak altitude higher than the International Space Station.

There, the Starship successfully tested the opening and closing of its forward payload bay door while in the vacuum of space — a first for the vehicle. It also transferred super-cooled liquid methane propellant between its internal tanks, another key objective.

But in a surprising move given Starship’s prime objectives, SpaceX did not re-ignite the spacecraft’s engines as it coasted along the high point of its elliptical orbital path around Earth. The engine restart and subsequent powered landing were considered critical test milestones to demonstrate capabilities to reach orbit and land vertically on other worlds like the Moon.

Insprucker did not directly explain why the re-ignition test was nixed, saying only: “We have fantastic data already that will inevitably lead to an even more fantastic vehicle.”

As Starship began its fiery re-entry descent through Earth’s atmosphere about 25 minutes after launch, SpaceX commentators confirmed that vehicle communications had been lost. Video from tracking cameras appeared to show debris raining down as the Starship disintegrated high above the Gulf of Mexico.

“With a test like this, success is never guaranteed,” said Insprucker. He added that the flight met enough objectives to retire outstanding safety concerns and likely clears the way for SpaceX to pursue rapid, successive Starship launches and testing.

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Despite the flaming conclusion, the test drew praise from NASA, SpaceX’s most high-profile Starship customer. The U.S. space agency is banking on Starship to land its astronauts on the lunar surface later this decade under its Artemis moon program.

“A successful test flight,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said via the social media platform X, adding that Starship had overcome key technical hurdles like staging separation, propellant transfer, and high-altitude Raptor firings.

Starship is the behemoth two-stage rocket that SpaceX founder Elon Musk envisions transporting people and cargo not just to the Moon, but also to Mars and other deep space destinations as interplanetary travel potentially grows more feasible in the decades ahead.

The billionaire tech tycoon has touted Starship as the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with more thrust than NASA’s iconic Saturn V rockets from the Apollo era. He wants the fully reusable system to eventually replace his company’s Falcon 9 rockets as SpaceX’s workhorse for satellite deliveries to Earth orbit.

But formidable challenges lay ahead before Starship can realize those goals. SpaceX must investigate the failure that doomed Thursday’s test vehicle, an exercise mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration which licenses Starship’s launches.

The company has signaled plans to rapidly accelerate the test cadence for Starship, aiming for at least six more flights from its coastal Texas facility this year alone. But that breakneck pace is contingent on clearing various regulatory hurdles, including environmental assessments that have stymied operations in the past.

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Even before Starship flew people, NASA plans to employ the spacecraft first for a crucial uncrewed test mission around the Moon in 2025 as part of its Artemis exploration campaign. Starship’s first crewed flight could target the lunar surface as early as 2027, NASA officials have said.

Those milestone missions are the next proving grounds where Starship must demonstrate critical life-support systems, rendezvous and docking procedures, precise lunar landings and lift-offs, and ultimately safe transportation of NASA’s astronauts.

For SpaceX, achieving reliable human spaceflight operations is an monumental engineering challenge far exceeding anything the company has tackled to date by launching satellites, space station cargo deliveries and even tourists into Earth orbit aboard its Crew Dragon capsules.

Both SpaceX and NASA are under rising pressure from ambitious rival programs in Russia and China, nations also aiming to re-establish a sustained presence on the Moon and eventually mount crewed missions to Mars in coming decades.

The spectacular, if unsuccessful, return of Starship during Thursday’s demonstration showcased the immense complexity and risks facing the program. But SpaceX’s fast and agile development strategy of relentlessly crash-testing its rockets is designed to uncover flaws quickly through repetition.

“With a flight test like we saw today, we are going to learn a lot to prepare us for the next commercial payload flight on one of the most powerful rockets ever built,” said Insprucker.

In the race to the Moon and beyond, Starship demonstrated both its promise and how much remains to be mastered before humans can safely go along for the ride.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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