SpaceX launched the most powerful rocket ever developed, the company’s next-generation Starship, on Saturday in a key test flight that could pave the way for missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.
The uncrewed test flight was largely successful and several key milestones were achieved, but SpaceX ultimately lost contact with Starship about 10 minutes into the flight and the spacecraft likely self-detonated due to a mid-flight issue.
The nearly 400-foot-tall Starship rocket lifted off at 8 a.m. ET from SpaceX’s Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas.
Cheers erupted from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, as the Starship rocket ignited and rumbled into the sky.
The fate of the Starship spacecraft is not yet known, but CNBC reported That SpaceX web host John Insprucker said during a livestream of the event that the spacecraft’s automated flight termination system likely activated and the spacecraft appeared to have detonated.
It is not yet known what may have caused SpaceX to lose contact with Starship, but the spacecraft’s flight termination system is designed to activate if it veers off course or another major anomaly is detected.
This was only Starship’s second launch, after a first test in April ended with the rocket exploding several minutes after liftoff.
The rocket has two parts: a first-stage booster known as Super Heavy and an upper-stage Starship spacecraft.
During Saturday’s launch, the two parts of the rocket separated in flight for the first time, a major milestone for SpaceX. The company carried out a maneuver called “hot staging,” which involved firing the Starship spacecraft’s engines while the Super Heavy booster was still partially fired. The hot-start strategy is designed to use the spacecraft’s engines to help it separate and continue in orbit.
After separation, the Super Heavy’s first stage was due to fall back to Earth and land in the Gulf of Mexico, but SpaceX reported that the booster exploded, possibly due to an anomaly. Few further details were provided at the time.
Both the Super Heavy first stage booster and the Starship spacecraft are designed to be reusable.
The launch was a closely watched event, with much at stake for SpaceX and the future of American space exploration.
Starship is expected to play a crucial role in NASA’s efforts to return to the Moon. The spacecraft was selected by the agency to carry astronauts to the lunar surface during the upcoming Artemis III mission, which could launch as early as 2025. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk also said Starship was developed for future missions to Mars.
The rocket’s second launch followed what was a fiery and destructive debut earlier this year.
In SpaceX’s first attempt to launch Starship, the rocket exploded a few minutes after liftoff, destroying much of the infrastructure on the launch pad and causing damage to coastal wetlands and a nearby Texas state park.
The incident triggered a month-long safety review and generated intense scrutiny over the environmental consequences of rocket launches from Boca Chica.
Earlier this week, the US Federal Aviation Administration cleared SpaceX to proceed with the second Starship launch, saying the company met environmental protection requirements for such operations.