SpaceX’s big rocket was lost during the final stage of a test flight, despite earlier success

Starship, hailed as the world’s most potent rocket, soared to unprecedented heights and distances during its third test flight on Thursday, although its journey concluded with a loss upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, SpaceX confirmed.

The liftoff from the company’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas occurred around 8:25 am local time (1325 GMT) and was broadcasted live on a webcast that garnered millions of viewers on the social media platform X.

This cutting-edge mega-rocket plays a pivotal role in NASA’s ambitions to land astronauts on the Moon later this decade, as well as aligns with Elon Musk’s aspirations of eventual Mars colonization.

“Congrats to @SpaceX on a successful test flight!” tweeted NASA administrator Bill Nelson in response to the test. The launch attracted significant attention following two previous attempts that ended in dramatic explosions. However, this trial-and-error approach has been central to SpaceX’s development strategy, yielding numerous successes in the past.

When fully assembled, the Starship rocket stands at an impressive 397 feet (121 meters) tall — towering over the Statue of Liberty by a substantial 90 feet. Its Super Heavy Booster generates a staggering 16.7 million pounds (74.3 Meganewtons) of thrust, nearly double that of NASA’s Space Launch System, although the latter is currently certified while Starship remains in the prototype phase.

The third launch test of Starship in its integrated configuration was its most ambitious yet, and SpaceX reported achieving many of its objectives. These included successfully opening and closing Starship’s payload door to assess its capability to deploy satellites into orbit.

High-definition footage from onboard cameras depicted Starship gliding through space, with Earth’s curvature visible in the background. It attained speeds exceeding 26,000 kilometers per hour and reached an altitude of over 200 kilometers above sea level.

Following its journey halfway around the globe, Starship initiated its descent over the Indian Ocean, with engineers observing as its heat shield, comprised of 18,000 hexagonal tiles, glowed red hot. However, ground control ceased receiving signals, leading to the declaration of the vessel as “lost” before achieving its intended splashdown. The lower-stage booster also failed to execute a successful water landing, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to initiate a “mishap” investigation.

“Starship will make life multi-planetary,” Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder, reiterated on X, underscoring the progress achieved.

SpaceX’s real-world testing approach has yielded both successes and setbacks. While the first integrated test in April 2023 resulted in the rocket’s destruction due to failed stage separation, the second test in November 2023 saw the booster separating from the spaceship before both exploded over the ocean.

SpaceX’s ability to swiftly progress with Starship is crucial, particularly with NASA’s planned return of astronauts to the Moon in 2026, utilizing a modified Starship as the lander vehicle. Meanwhile, China aims to land its first crew on the Moon by 2030.

SpaceX faces the challenge of demonstrating not only the safe launch, flight, and landing of Starship but also the capability to send multiple “Starship tankers” into orbit to refuel the main Starship for its journey to the Moon, a task that requires handling supercooled temperatures.

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