– SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 18, 2023
SpaceX flew Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, for the second time today – and even though the Starship’s Super Heavy booster and upper stage had to explode mid-flight, it was still a huge success for the company. known for taking a rapid iterative approach to hardware development.
The rocket lifted off at 7:03 a.m. CST from SpaceX’s massive Starship development and launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas. At liftoff, all 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster were ignited and none shut down during the mission, a huge improvement over the first launch, which lost about six engines between liftoff and flight.
The launch infrastructure, including the orbital launch pad the vehicle rests on before liftoff, also appears to have held up better this time around. This suggests that the new water deluge system, which floods the launch area with water at the time of engine ignition, appears to have been successful in protecting the infrastructure. (During the first launch, the firing power of the Raptor engines sent huge chunks of concrete and dust into the air, effectively destroying the orbital launch rack.)
The other major victory came during the stage split. The Starship’s first orbital flight test didn’t go that far. But the second time, using a new stage separation technique known as “hot stage,” where the Starship’s engines fire to push the Booster away, SpaceX managed to pull it off.
Shortly after, the automated flight termination system (FTS) aboard the Super Heavy booster triggered, leading to a “rapid and unscheduled disassembly” – AKA, it exploded. Why this happened is unclear, although SpaceX hosts during the company’s live webcast of the launch said the team would be able to use data from post-launch moments. hot staging and pre-explosion to better understand the performance of the booster.
This same fate eventually befell the upper stage of the Starship. Before the second engine shutdown, when Starship would have shut down all six of its engines and continued its ascent, SpaceX hosts announced that they had lost data from the second stage. The hosts then said that automated FTS had been activated – although, again, it’s unclear why.
The mission ended approximately seven minutes after takeoff. No people or payload were on board the vehicle. The end goal of a flight test is for Starship to successfully cut the engine, hover more than halfway around the Earth, and dock in the Pacific Ocean.
“An incredibly successful day, even though we had a ‘rapid and unplanned disassembly’ of the Super Heavy booster and ship,” Kate Tice, SpaceX’s senior manager of quality systems engineering, said during the webcast.
Measuring 397 feet tall and approximately 100 feet in diameter, Starship is the largest rocket humanity has ever built. To put things in perspective, the Super Heavy’s 33 Raptor engines produce 16.7 million pounds of thrust – far more than the 1.7 million pounds of thrust of the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s most capable rocket.
At this point, getting Starship operational is key to SpaceX’s mission. In the shorter term, this mission will be capable of simultaneously launching several dozen heavier Starlink satellites; Longer term, this involves using cash flows from the upgraded Starlink constellation to fund a mission to Mars.
But SpaceX is not the only entity banking on the success of Starship. NASA has also attached itself to SpaceX’s ship, awarding it contracts worth about $4 billion to develop a lunar landing system using Starship to bring astronauts to the Moon as part of the Artemis program of the space agency. This first landing mission, Artemis III, is currently planned for 2025.