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SpaceX launches Super Heavy-Starship rocket on third test flight

Test launch of Starship rocket a partial success
SpaceX test launch of massive Starship rocket a partial success 01:34

SpaceX's huge Super Heavy-Starship rocket, the most powerful ever built, blasted off on its third test flight Thursday morning, successfully boosting the unpiloted upper stage into space. While both stages broke apart during separate descents to ocean splashdowns, company officials hailed the flight as a major step forward.

Spectacular live video from a camera mounted on one of the Starship's fins showed the red glow of re-entry heating as the spacecraft fell back into the lower atmosphere, growing more and more intense until the Starship was engulfed in a brilliant fireball. Insulation tiles on its belly experienced temperatures higher than 2,500 degrees.

Re-entry heating builds up on the Starship as it fell back into the lower atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. SpaceX

Telemetry stopped flowing at an altitude of about 40 miles, indicating the Starship broke up before it was able to carry out a rocket-powered descent to a destructive splashdown in the Indian Ocean. But making it all the way from launch, to space and then deep enough into the atmosphere to experience peak heating was viewed by the company as a major accomplishment.

Telemetry was lost shortly after the spacecraft began falling through the zone of peak heating, experiencing temperatures higher than 2,500 degrees. While the Starship did not survive re-entry, SpaceX said the data collected during the test would help engineers improve performance during the next test flight. SpaceX

"Today has been a phenomenal day," said a SpaceX commentator.

Even so, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a post on X the loss of both stages constituted a "mishap" and that the agency "will oversee the SpaceX-led mishap investigation."

The test flight began at 9:25 a.m. EDT when the giant rocket's 33 Raptor engines, gulping 40,000 pounds of liquid oxygen and methane propellants per second, thundered to life with a ground-shaking roar.

A moment later, the 397-foot-tall rocket began climbing skyward, blasting through billowing clouds of dust and steam generated by the booster's fiery exhaust vaporizing torrents of water being sprayed upward at the base of the pad to ease the shock of engine ignition.

Smoothly accelerating it consumed propellants and lost weight, the Super Heavy-Starship arced away to the east over the Gulf of Mexico, putting on a spectacular show for thousands of area residents, tourists and a throng of journalists watching from the launch site and nearby South Padre Island a few miles to the north.

All 33 Raptors appeared to fire normally, boosting the rocket past the region of maximum aerodynamic stress as it accelerated through the speed of sound and out of the dense lower atmosphere.

SpaceX Super Heavy-Starship rocket launches on a test flight
SpaceX Super Heavy-Starship rocket launches on a test flight Thursday, March 14, 2024. SpaceX

Two minutes and 42 seconds after liftoff, the Raptors began shutting down as planned, followed seconds later by ignition of the Starship upper stage's six engines while the booster was still attached, a recent modification known as "hot staging." A moment later, the Super Heavy and Starship stages cleanly separated.

While the Starship continued its climb to space, the booster flipped around and began heading back toward shore for descent to splashdown. Most of the fall back to Earth went smoothly with its engines firing as required to slow down.

But as it neared the Gulf and passed through low cloud decks, the Super Heavy began swinging through wide arcs as it struggled to maintain its orientation. At that point, camera views from the spacecraft were lost and the booster fell to a "hard splashdown" without a planned engine firing known as a landing burn.

SpaceX Super Heavy-Starship rocket leaves Earth behind following launch on its third test flight, Thursday, March 14, 2024. SpaceX

The Starship, meanwhile, appeared to chalk up a flawless climb to space. Its Raptors shut down eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff and the spacecraft beamed back spectacular views of space and Earth's limb while flight controllers carried out a series of tests. Re-entry began about 40 minutes later.

Problems with previous test flights

Two previous test flights ended with spectacular self-destruct conflagrations — the first, last April, after multiple Super Heavy engine shutdowns and a stage separation malfunction and the second, in November, just before the Starship would have started a planned loop around the planet for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii.

SpaceX engineers modified multiple systems in the wake of the failures, including work to beef up the rocket's self-destruct system, to improve engine performance and to protect the pad with a high-power water deluge system that also deadens the acoustic shock of engine ignition.

The company also implemented the "hot staging" technique in which the Starship's six Raptor engines ignite while the stage is still attached to the Super Heavy booster. Hot staging, used for decades by Russian Soyuz rockets, helps ensure a more efficient stage-separation sequence.

"Starship's second flight test achieved a number of major milestones and provided invaluable data to continue rapidly developing Starship," SpaceX said on its website. "This rapid iterative development approach has been the basis for all of SpaceX's major innovative advancements."

For its third test flight, the primary goals were roughly the same, to boost the Starship into space for a sub-orbital test flight and high-speed re-entry and to carry out controlled landings by both stages, the Super Heavy in the Gulf of Mexico and the Starship in the Indian Ocean.

SpaceX pioneered technology that allows the company to recover and reuse smaller Falcon 9 boosters. But no Starship has ever attempted coming back down through the atmosphere from space, subjecting insulating tiles on its belly to temperatures higher than 2,500 degrees.

While both stages are designed to be fully reusable, there were no recovery plans for the third test flight. The flight plan called fort both stages to attempt rocket-powered descents mimicking actual landing procedures and both were expected to break up and sink on ocean impact. As it turned out, neither stage got that far. But it was close.

In any case, during the Starship's coast toward entry, flight controllers tested a payload door that will be used on future flights to launch Starlink satellites.

More important to NASA, the rocket successfully transferred cryogenic propellants from one tank to another in the weightless environment of space and carried out the first restart of a Raptor engine outside the atmosphere.

The propellant transfer test and Raptor restart are critical milestones for NASA, which is paying SpaceX billions to build a Starship variant to serve as the Human Landing System, or HLS, for the agency's Artemis moon program.

The HLS will require automated refueling in Earth orbit by multiple Super Heavy-Starship tankers before restarting its engines to head for the moon to await the arrival of astronauts who will use the spacecraft to carry them to and from the surface.

Up to 10 or so refueling flights will be necessary for one HLS flight to the moon.

Largest rocket ever built

While clearly a challenge, the fully reusable Super Heavy-Starship, known collectively simply as "Starship," is a potential game changer, a potentially revolutionary step intended to increase payload weight to orbit while vastly reducing the cost.

It is the largest rocket ever built, standing 39 stories tall, measuring 29.5 feet wide and generating more than 16 million pounds of thrust from its SpaceX-designed Raptor engines, twice the power of NASA's Space Launch System moon rocket and the agency's legendary Saturn 5.

SpaceX's Starship test launch ends in explosions 01:48

The Super Heavy first stage alone stands 23 stories tall while the Starship upper stage, designed to carry cargo, passengers or both, towers another 164 feet and is equipped with six Raptor engines of its own.

The Super Heavy is designed to fly back to its launch pad, either in Boca Chica or at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, after boosting the Starship upper stage out of the lower atmosphere and then descend to touchdown, captured by two huge robotic arms on the launch gantry.

Starships are designed to fly themselves to touchdowns anywhere landing pads are available as well as the moon and, eventually, Mars.

SpaceX launched the Super Heavy-Starship on its maiden flight last April 20, but the rocket suffered multiple engine failures or shutdowns. The rest continued firing after the expected shutdown time and the first and second stages failed to separate normally. The self-destruct system was triggered, but it took longer than expected to activate.

Visibly tumbling, the rocket blew itself up four minutes after liftoff. Maximum altitude was 24 miles.

In its second test flight last Nov. 18, the Super Heavy booster operated normally, the hot-staging procedure worked as planned and the Starship upper stage separated normally to continue the climb to space on the power of its six Raptor engines.

The Super Heavy, meanwhile, flipped around as expected and began flying back toward the Texas coast for splashdown. But moments after turning around, the rocket exploded in a shower of debris. The Starship stage flew itself to space as planned but just before or during engine shutdown, it, too, exploded.

Getting the Super Heavy-Starship flying on a regular basis is critical to NASA's Artemis moon program. NASA gave SpaceX at $2.9 billion contract in 2021 to develop a variant of the Starship upper stage to carry astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface and back. Artemis crews will travel to and from the moon using Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsules.

NASA's contract requires one unpiloted lunar landing test flight before astronauts will make an actual landing attempt. Artemis managers are targeting late 2026 for the first lunar landing with astronauts on board.

But that will depend on SpaceX launching enough Super Heavy-Starship flights to demonstrate reliability. While SpaceX's philosophy is to fly frequently, learn from mistakes and fly again, NASA will require a long string of successful flights before the agency will deem it safe to put astronauts aboard.

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