SpaceX Starship mega rocket launches successfully but is lost on re-entry

SpaceX’s next-generation mega rocket launched Thursday morning, thundering into orbit on a key test flight meant to demonstrate new technologies and techniques that will be crucial on future missions to the moon and beyond.

The flight, held on the 22nd anniversary of SpaceX’s founding, was the rocket’s third and most ambitious such test, according to the company. The event was closely watched because the nearly 400-foot-tall booster, known as Starship, is expected to play an important part in NASA’s return-to-the-moon program.

The rocket lifted off at 9:25 a.m. ET from SpaceX’s Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas. On this outing, SpaceX achieved two major milestones over previous Starship tests: The spacecraft successfully reached orbit, then re-entered Earth’s atmosphere for the first time more than 40 minutes later.

“This is the furthest and fastest that Starship has ever flown,” SpaceX officials said during their live broadcast of the event.

However, data suggests the spacecraft was lost while it returned to Earth, before it reached the splashdown in the Indian Ocean that SpaceX had hoped for.

After Thursday’s test flight concluded, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was investigating a “mishap” involving the Starship vehicle and the rocket’s first-stage booster, known as Super Heavy.

“No public injuries or public property damage have been reported,” the agency said in a statement. “The FAA is overseeing the SpaceX-led mishap investigation to ensure the company complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements.”

The FAA will need to conclude its investigation and SpaceX will be required to take any corrective actions identified by the agency before Starship can fly again.

Despite the undesired ending, SpaceX called it a “phenomenal day.”

The company adjusted the targeted liftoff time on Thursday morning, but Starship’s launch started smoothly. Roughly three minutes into flight, the Super Heavy first-stage booster successfully separated from the upper-stage Starship spacecraft.

However, Super Heavy did not accomplish a final burn as it fell back to Earth, causing it to splash down “hard” in the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX said during its webcast.

SpaceX had also hoped to demonstrate several other processes and capabilities during the flight, including opening and closing the vehicle’s payload door and transferring propellant between two of Starship’s tanks in orbit. The company said it will need to analyze post-flight data to determine if those objectives were completed.

SpaceX also intended to fire one of Starship’s Raptor engines while in space, but it ultimately opted to skip that portion.

Many of the techniques attempted during Starship’s third flight would help SpaceX carry out future missions to deploy satellites, as well as set the stage for moon missions as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

The company also said many of the objectives would help develop Starship into a fully reusable system. That is SpaceX’s eventual plan, but it was not the intention for this test flight.

Starship was selected by NASA to carry astronauts to the lunar surface in the upcoming Artemis III mission, which could launch in 2026.

Starship’s debut flight last April ended when the rocket exploded several minutes after liftoff. A second Starship launch in November achieved several milestones, including separation of the first-stage booster and upper-stage spacecraft, but the company lost contact with the vehicle shortly after.

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