SpaceX’s colossal Starship spacecraft exploded during its second major test flight on Saturday, but achieved new milestones that advance Elon Musk’s crucial deep-space launch system.
As the Starship spacecraft was heading to near orbit, it appeared to burst apart on an X livestream.
Later, the hosts of the livestream said that Starship likely had been lost, believing that the vehicle’s flight termination system activated while the vehicle was attempting to reach near orbit. The flight termination system is used to destroy a rocket if it starts to malfunction or deviates from its flight path during a launch.
“With a test like this, success comes from what we learn,” SpaceX wrote on X. “Today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary.”
The largest and most powerful rocket ever developed, Starship successfully took off a little after 7 a.m. from SpaceX’s Starbase launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, riding atop its massive Super Heavy booster.
The flight appeared to begin smoothly, with the vehicle clearing the launch tower. The two vehicles separated as planned a little more than two and a half minutes into the mission, a feat that the SpaceX failed to accomplish on the vehicle’s first test flight in April.
Swiftly after separation, however, the Super Heavy booster burst apart for reasons not immediately clear. Starship continued onward on its path to reach near orbit and eventually reaching space for the first time. But, roughly eight minutes into the flight, a large cloud of debris could be seen surrounding the Starship spacecraft, and SpaceX said it had lost data from the vehicle.
“As far as test flights go, I think that it certainly was more of a successful launch than the first test flight,” Carissa Christensen, CEO of space analytics firm BryceTech, said.
SpaceX, known for its iterative approach to rocket development, is likely to view the overall flight as a success given the new milestones it achieved.
“First stage looked beautiful with 33 Raptor engines firing,” SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said on the livestream. “We got the hot staging, you know the thing that we really wanted to see.”
For this flight, SpaceX introduced a rare technique known as hot staging for when Starship and Super Heavy break apart. Starship’s engines briefly ignited while still attached to the Super Heavy booster, giving it a slight kick as the two vehicles separated.
The fact that all of the Super Heavy booster’s 33 Raptor engines worked throughout the flight was also a significant improvement from the last mission, which experienced multiple engine failures during the climb to space.
Starship is designed to carry payloads and people to distant destinations like the moon and Mars, making it central to Musk’s vision of starting a settlement on the Red Planet.