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SpaceX’s Starship rocket reaches space but is intentionally destroyed mid-flight

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket lifts off from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. November 18, 2023. 

Joe Skipper | Reuters

SpaceX launched its second Starship rocket flight on Saturday, with the company pushing development of the mammoth vehicle past new milestones.

Liftoff came a few minutes after 8 a.m. ET from its Starbase facility near Boca Chica, Texas.

Starship flew for more than seven minutes, successfully separating from its booster, before the rocket’s onboard system intentionally destroyed the vehicle mid-flight.

No people were on board the test flight.

“We have lost the data from the second stage … what we do believe right now is that the Automated Flight Termination System on the second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn,” John Insprucker, SpaceX principal integration engineer, said on the company’s webcast.

The flight termination system is a standard safety feature in rockets, as it destroys the vehicle in the event a problem arises or it flies off course.

After reaching space, Starship was planned to fly most of the way around the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down off the coast of Kauai.

“An incredibly successful day, even though we did have a ‘rapid unscheduled disassembly’ both of the Super Heavy booster and the ship,” SpaceX quality engineering manager Kate Tice said on the webcast.

The Federal Aviation Administration cleared SpaceX for a second launch attempt earlier this week.

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SpaceX first launched a full Starship rocket system in April. Although that flight did not reach space, it successfully achieved multiple historic firsts for an experimental rocket of unprecedented scale. The mid-air destruction of the rocket, as well as an investigation into damage caused back on the ground, triggered a regulatory review that spanned nearly seven months.

The launch attempt comes on the heels of renewed backlash against SpaceX CEO Elon Musk over comments made online. The White House on Friday condemned what it called “abhorrent promotion of Antisemitic and racist hate” by Musk on his social media platform, X.

Starship system

The rocket is powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane. The full system requires more than 10 million pounds of propellant for launch.

The Starship system is designed to be fully reusable and aims to become a new method of flying cargo and people beyond Earth. The rocket is also critical to NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon. SpaceX won a multi-billion 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 Starship development this year.

Goals for second flight

There were no people on board this attempt to reach space with Starship. The company’s leadership has previously emphasized that SpaceX expects to fly hundreds of Starship missions before the rocket launches with any crew.

SpaceX was looking to surpass the nearly 4-minute flight of the first launch, reach space with Saturday’s attempt and demonstrate that improvements to its ground infrastructure mitigate the damage caused by the debut attempt.

During the April launch, SpaceX lit only 30 of the 33 Raptor engines at the base of the Super Heavy booster. Other engines were lost mid-flight. Additionally, a communications problem led to an unexpected delay in triggering the rocket’s Autonomous Flight Termination System, which destroys the vehicle in the event it flies off course.

SpaceX introduced upgrades to the launch pad infrastructure as well as the design of the rocket itself for the second attempt.

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