BOCA CHICA, Texas - The second test launch of the SpaceX Starship got off to a successful start on Saturday, with the booster separating from the spaceship, but both then exploded shortly afterward over the ocean.
“Such an incredibly successful day,” a SpaceX announcer said. “Even though we did have a … rapid unscheduled disassembly of both the super heavy booster and the ship.”
The Starship has been developed to carry astronauts to the moon and beyond — SpaceX owner Elon Musk one day hopes to colonise Mars. Its first test flight in April also ended in an explosion.
The two-stage rocket ship blasted off from the company’s Starbase launch site near Boca Chica, Texas, soaring roughly 55 miles (90 kilometres) above ground on a planned 90-minute flight into space.
The rocket’s Super Heavy first-stage booster appeared to achieve a crucial manoeuvre to separate with its core stage but then exploded over the Gulf of Mexico shortly after detaching, a SpaceX webcast showed.
Meanwhile, the core Starship booster flew further toward space, but a few minutes later mission control suddenly lost contact with the vehicle.
“We have lost the data from the second stage. … We think we may have lost the second stage,” SpaceX livestream host John Insprucker said.
About eight minutes into the test mission, a camera view tracking the Starship booster appeared to show an explosion that would suggest the vehicle failed at that time. The rocket’s altitude was 91 miles (148km) at the time.
“What we do believe right now is that the automated flight termination system on second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn as we were headed downrange out over the Gulf of Mexico,” Insprucker said.
“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 company said.
Ultimate goal is Mars
The mission’s objective was to get Starship off the ground in Texas and into space just shy of reaching orbit, then plunge through Earth’s atmosphere for a splashdown off the coast of Hawaii. The launch had been scheduled for Friday but was pushed back by a day for a last-minute swap of flight-control hardware.
A successful test would have marked a key step toward achieving SpaceX’s ambition producing a large, multi-purpose, spacecraft capable of sending people and cargo back to the moon later this decade for NASA, and ultimately to Mars.
Musk also sees Starship as eventually replacing the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket as the centrepiece of its launch business that already lofts most of the world’s satellites and other commercial payloads into space.
NASA, SpaceX’s primary customer, has a considerable stake in the success of Starship, which the US space agency is counting on to play a central role in its human spaceflight programme, Artemis, successor to the Apollo missions of more than a half century ago that put astronauts on the moon for the first time.
SpaceX was forced to blow up Starship during its first test flight four minutes after launch on April 20, because the two stages failed to separate. The rocket disintegrated into a ball of fire and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, sending a dust cloud over a town several miles (kilometres) away.
After a months long investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday finally cleared SpaceX to try again, despite objections by conservation groups, who are suing the regulator claiming it failed to comply with environmental law.
Lunar landing planned for 2025
SpaceX has insisted that explosions during the early stages of rocket development are welcome and help inform design choices faster than ground tests — though time is ticking down for a modified Starship to be ready for a planned lunar landing in 2025.
The biggest change since the first launch relates to how the spaceship separates from the booster.
Starship has been modified to use “hot staging,” which means the upper stage engines will ignite while it is still attached to the booster, an approach that is commonly used in Russian rockets and could unlock far greater power.
Other changes include improvements to vents to decrease the likelihood of an explosion.
The first launch also caused massive damage to the company’s launchpad at Starbase, and this has now been reinforced with high-strength concrete and a system that will jet water to protect against the enormous heat and force generated by launch.
Starship is the largest rocket ever built. When its two stages are combined, the rocket stands 397 feet (121 metres) tall — beating the Statue of Liberty by a comfortable 90 feet.
Its Super Heavy booster produces 16.7 million pounds (74.3 Meganewtons) of thrust, almost double that of the world’s second most powerful rocket, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) — though the latter is now fully operational.
Both systems are designed to be fully reusable, a key element of SpaceX’s design meant to greatly reduce costs.