SpaceX’s uncrewed spacecraft Starship, developed to carry astronauts to the moon and beyond, was presumed to have failed in space minutes after lifting off on Saturday in a second test after its first attempt to reach space ended in an explosion.
The two-stage rocketship blasted off from the Elon Musk-owned company’s Starbase launch site near Boca Chica in Texas, soaring roughly 90 kilometres above ground on a planned 90-minute flight into space.
But the rocket’s Super Heavy first-stage booster, though it appeared to achieve a crucial manoeuvre to separate with its core stage, exploded over the Gulf of Mexico shortly after detaching.
Meanwhile, the core Starship booster carried further toward space, but roughly 10 minutes into the flight a company broadcaster said that SpaceX 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’s live stream host John Insprucker said.
Insprucker said the first stage of the flight “looked beautiful,” but then the “automatic flight termination system appears to have triggered,” a mechanism designed to destroy Starship.
The launch was the second attempt to fly Starship mounted atop its towering Super Heavy rocket booster, following an April attempt that ended in failure about four minutes after liftoff.
A live SpaceX webcast of Saturday’s launch showed the rocket ship rising from the launch tower into the morning sky as the Super Heavy’s cluster of powerful Raptor engines thundered to life.
Flight termination system kicked in
It’s not yet known what could have caused SpaceX to lose contact with Starship, but the spacecraft’s flight termination system is designed to kick in if it veers off course or another major anomaly is detected.
The test flight’s principal objective was to get Starship off the ground and into space just shy of Earth’s obit. Doing so 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 — SpaceX’s founder, chief executive and chief engineer — 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 U.S. space agency is counting on to play a central role in its human spaceflight program, Artemis, successor to the Apollo missions of more than a half century ago that put astronauts on the moon for the first time.
Splashdown was planned near Hawaii
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 Hawaii’s coast. The launch had been scheduled for Friday but was pushed back by a day for a last-minute swap of flight-control hardware.
During its April 20 test flight, the spacecraft blew itself to bits less than four minutes into a planned 90-minute flight that flight went awry from the start. SpaceX has acknowledged that some of the Super Heavy’s 33 Raptor engines malfunctioned on ascent, and that the lower-stage booster rocket failed to separate as designed from the upper-stage Starship before the flight was terminated.