SpaceX launched a Super Heavy-Starship rocket on a second test flight, but it failed to reach space

SpaceX launched a Super Heavy-Starship rocket on a second test flight, but it failed to reach space

SpaceX is giant Super Heavy StarshipThe most powerful rocket ever built was launched from its surface Second test flight On Saturday, while the initial stages of the mission went smoothly, the first stage disintegrated moments after it separated from the spacecraft’s upper stage. The spacecraft, in turn, blew itself up as it approached space.

Considered a successful learning experiment by SpaceX, it was the second consecutive failure to send the spacecraft’s upper stage into space, which is a frustrating disappointment for us. Elon MuskThis step constitutes a potential major setback for NASA, which is counting on the spacecraft to transport Artemis astronauts to the surface of the moon in the next few years.

People watch SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft aboard its powerful Super Heavy rocket lift off from the company’s Boca Chica launch pad on an unmanned test flight, as seen from South Padre Island, Texas, on November 18, 2023.

Reuters/Joe Nakamura

While SpaceX’s philosophy is to fly as quickly as possible and learn from any mistakes, NASA will need a long string of successful missions before the agency deems it safe to put astronauts on board. There is no doubt that SpaceX will resolve the issues that led to Saturday’s flight being derailed, but each delay poses a threat to NASA’s lunar landing schedule.

But SpaceX Post on social media “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn,” he said, “and today’s test will help us improve spacecraft reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was also supportive.

“Congratulations to the teams who made progress in flight testing today.” chirp. “Spaceflight is a bold adventure that requires a can-do spirit and bold innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn and then fly again.”

After shattering the morning calm at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site on the Texas Gulf Coast, the spacecraft’s 33 methane-burning Raptor engines ignited in a torrent of flame at 8:03 a.m. EDT, sweeping the rocket Immediately in rising clouds of dust and steam.

The 397-foot-long, 11-million-pound rocket gulps down more than 40,000 pounds of methane and liquid oxygen per second, impressing thousands of area residents, tourists and journalists watching from nearby South Padre Island.

The launch came nearly seven months after the first test flight on April 20 It ended in a stunning fire Four minutes after liftoff, due to several first stage engine failures, problems separating the spacecraft from Super Heavy and a catastrophic stumble. Maximum elevation: 24 miles.

The second time, the rocket went further and many of the systems that derailed the first test flight appeared to be operating normally. All 33 Raptor engines powering the first stage were fired throughout the booster phase of the flight, and the new “hot staging” system, where the spacecraft’s engines were ignited before separation, worked as designed.

SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft lifts off aboard its powerful Super Heavy rocket from the company’s Boca Chica launch pad on an unmanned test flight, as seen from South Padre Island, Texas, on November 18, 2023.

Reuters/Joe Nakamura

Moments after separation, the first stage flipped over and began lining up for a planned landing in the Gulf of Mexico, near the Texas coast. But moments later, it suddenly collapsed, perhaps due to the pressures imposed by the hot staging technique.

However, the spacecraft continued to climb into space with the power of its six Raptor engines. All went well until about eight and a half minutes into the flight when controllers lost contact with the rocket. The craft had disappeared from view on long-range tracking cameras at that point, but the sudden shimmering disturbance in the atmosphere may have been a sign of the missile’s destruction.

“We lost data from the second stage,” said John Innsbrucker, a SpaceX engineer.

Musk, the founder of SpaceX, can be seen sitting with flight controllers, looking at computer screens to get a sense of what might happen.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk, standing third from right, discusses the launch with engineers at the company’s Mission Control Center in Boca Chica, Texas, on November 18, 2023.


Moments later, Innsbrucker said: “The second stage’s automated flight termination system appears to have been activated very late in the burn as we were heading down over the Gulf of Mexico.”

The FAA said in a statement that it will participate “in every step of the accident investigation process and must approve the final accident report, including corrective actions.”

“The Starship Super Heavy vehicle’s return to flight is dependent on the FAA’s determination that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not impact public safety,” the statement read.

What worked – and what went wrong?

It is not yet known why the Super Heavy booster disintegrated or why the Starship’s upper stage apparently failed before or after the engine was shut down. But SpaceX commentators said the primary goal of the flight, which was to test the hot staging system to separate the upper and lower stages, appeared to be working as planned.

Likewise, all 33 Raptor engines on Super Heavy and the six engines that power the Starship spacecraft appear to operate normally as long as the vehicles are visible. It remains to be seen how other upgrades play out in the wake of Saturday’s April fiasco.

NASA is spending billions on a variant of the spacecraft to transport Artemis astronauts to the moon’s surface. SpaceX is counting on the rocket to dramatically expand its fleet of Starlink internet satellites and to eventually power low-cost government and commercial flights to the Moon, Mars and beyond, in keeping with Musk’s drive to make humanity a “multi-planetary species.”

Multiple test flights will be needed to prove the reliability required for astronaut flights, and it is not yet clear how long that might take. While Saturday’s launch was not entirely successful, it demonstrated strong engine performance and successful stage separation.

On the April flight, the pad was severely damaged, the Super Heavy rocket suffered several premature engine shutdowns, the stage separation system did not work and the rocket’s self-destruct system took longer than expected to activate.

The rocket reached a maximum altitude of 24 miles, well below the 50 miles that NASA considers the “limit” of space, before tumbling back toward Earth and exploding in a fireball of burning propellant.

The FAA investigated the failure and cited “multiple root causes of the mishap and 63 corrective actions that SpaceX must take to prevent a reoccurrence of the mishap.”

Musk said the company has implemented “over a thousand” changes to improve safety and performance. The company finally received the required launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) earlier this week after a final review of the missile’s potential impact on wildlife in the area.

Besides hot staging, SpaceX added a powerful water immersion system to the launch pad to reduce acoustic shock from engine ignition and combined propulsion effects. During the launch in April, the platform’s base was severely damaged, with steel and concrete debris exploding into the surrounding area.

Other major upgrades include replacing the hydraulic motors with an electric motor steering system and an improved and faster self-destruct system.

The most powerful missile in the world

Musk believes the Super Heavy spacecraft will open a new era in space transportation.

It is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, standing 40 stories tall and weighing more than 11 million pounds when fully loaded with propellant.

The rocket burns methane gas with liquid oxygen, and is capable of generating an astonishing 16.7 million pounds of thrust, more than twice that of NASA’s Space Launch System lunar rocket and the legendary Saturn V rocket from the Apollo era.

The Super Heavy first stage alone is 230 feet high, while the Starship upper stage, designed to carry cargo, passengers or both, is another 164 feet high, and is equipped with six of its own Raptor engines. It is capable of lifting up to 150 tons of cargo into low Earth orbit.

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft is removed from atop its super-heavy rocket as it prepares for launch on November 16, 2023.

Joe Skipper/Reuters

Getting the Super Heavy-Starship on a regular basis is critical to NASA’s Artemis moon program. NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract in 2021 to develop a variant of Starship’s upper stage to transport astronauts to the lunar surface in the next two to three years.

To send a spacecraft to the moon, SpaceX must first refuel it in low Earth orbit, robotically transferring thousands of gallons of ultra-cold cryogenic propellant carried by multiple Starship “tankers.” The number of carriers needed is not yet known, but senior NASA managers have said that for each spacecraft sent to the Moon more than a dozen will be needed.

NASA’s contract requires one unmanned lunar test flight before astronauts can attempt a landing. Artemis managers continue to officially target late 2025 for the first lunar landing with astronauts on board, but that’s not remotely possible given SpaceX’s speed in developing the Starship system.

It is also unknown when SpaceX might be ready to launch paying customers aboard the new rocket. Aside from NASA’s lunar program, at least three civilian missions have been booked so far.

Billionair Jared Isaacmanwhich planned the Crew Dragon’s first private flight to low Earth orbit in 2019, plans to be on board the spacecraft’s first crewed orbital flight as part of its Polaris Dawn program.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who paid the Russians for a visit to the International Space Station in 2021, also chartered a Starship — “Dear Moon” — to take him, a co-pilot and 10 artists and influencers on a privately funded trip around the Moon.

A third civilian Starship flight carrying 12 passengers, including space station veteran Dennis Tito and his wife, has also been booked. Tito paid the Russians an estimated $20 million to visit the International Space Station in 2001, and says he can’t wait to return to space and share the experience with his wife.

It is not known what SpaceX may charge for a privately chartered Starship flight.

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