Spaceflight Insider

Starship soars to new heights, reaching space for first time

SpaceX's Starship rises from the smoke to begin its ascent toward space. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Starship rises from the smoke to begin its ascent toward space. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s massive Super Heavy Starship rocket made it all the way to space during its second integrated flight test before being intentionally destroyed roughly eight minutes after launch.

The world’s largest rocket lifted off the pad at 8:03 a.m. EST (13:03 UTC) Nov. 18 from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas. The 393-foot (120-meter) tall vehicle consisted of a Super Heavy booster and upper stage ship.

“With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary,” the company said in a statement.

While not all of the flight’s goals were achieved, the test gave the company valuable data as it continues to refine the system that will help return astronauts to the surface of the Moon for NASA.

Unlike the first launch in April, the vehicle’s 33 Raptor engines appeared to perform nominally all the way to stage separation, which occurred approximately 2 minutes, 50 seconds into flight. SpaceX employed a “hot staging” approach during separation, meaning the Starship upper stage ignited its engines while a small subset of the Super Heavy booster’s engines continued to fire.

All 33 first stage Raptor engines on Starship perform nominally during ascent. Credit: SpaceX

All 33 first stage Raptor engines on Starship perform nominally during ascent. Credit: SpaceX

After stage separation, the ship continued accelerating toward orbital velocity while the Super Heavy booster began a boostback burn.

The plan was to fire a total of 13 engines, boosting the first stage back toward the Texas coast to perform a powered soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. However, within seconds of the beginning of that process, several engines began to fail. At 3 minutes, 20 seconds, the flight termination system on the booster was triggered, destroying the vehicle.

Meanwhile, the upper stage ship and its six Raptor engines continued as planned for several more minutes. About 8 minutes into flight, while the vehicle was traveling at a speed of roughly 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) per hour at an altitude of 93 miles (150 kilometers), its flight termination system was triggered.

It’s unclear if the ship had finished its planned burn before the self-destruct sequence occurred, or shortly after. During SpaceX’s webcast, SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said teams lost data from the second stage.

“The automated flight termination system on the second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn as we were headed downrange out over the Gulf of Mexico,” Insprucker said.

Regardless, the flight achieved more milestones than the first in April. During that launch, the rocket’s engines caused massive damage to the pad infrastructure, which did not have a water deluge system. Less than 4 minutes into flight, after struggling with several Raptor engine failures, the vehicle spun out of control before breaking apart.

The booster and ship portions of Starship separate during a "hot-staging" event. Credit: SpaceX

Starship separates during a “hot-staging” event. Credit: SpaceX

For the second integrated flight test, SpaceX installed a water deluge system, which appears to have done its job. Additionally, the company added a hot-staging ring to assist with stage separation.

The milestone the company has yet to achieve in this early phase of the Starship program is the upper stage reentry, which was planned to occur just north of Hawaii less than 90 minutes later. However, with the destruction of the ship, that goal will have to be attempted during the next flight test.

SpaceX has a contract from NASA worth $2.9 billion to build a lunar lander variant of Starship to send astronauts to the Moon’s surface later this decade. A lot of technologies still need to be developed in order for the company to fulfill its obligations to the U.S. space agency, but this second integrated test flight showed the company is well on its way in making progress.

“Each test represents a step closer to putting the first woman on the Moon with the #Artemis III Starship human landing system,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Jim Free. “Looking forward to seeing what can be learned from this test that moves us closer to the next milestone.”

Starship in flight. Credit: SpaceX

Starship in flight. Credit: SpaceX

Video courtesy of SciNews


Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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