Starship Reaches Orbit on SpaceX’s Third Test but Breaks Up on Re-Entry

After falling short in its first two attempts, SpaceX got its Starship super-rocket to an orbital altitude today during the launch system’s third integrated flight test. Now it just has to work on the landing. 

Today’s test marked a major milestone in SpaceX’s effort to develop Starship as the equivalent of a gigantic Swiss Army knife for spaceflight, with potential applications ranging from the deployment of hundreds of Starlink broadband satellites at a time to crewed odysseys to the moon, Mars and beyond.

The 396-foot-tall (120-meter-tall) rocket lifted off from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas at 8:25 a.m. CT (1325 GMT), with all 33 of the first-stage booster’s methane-fueled Raptor engines firing. The Super Heavy booster is considered the world’s most powerful launch vehicle, with 16.7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

Minutes after launch, the rocket’s second stage — known as Ship — successfully executed a hot-staging operation to start up its six engines while still attached to the Super Heavy booster. After stage separation, Ship continued onward at orbital velocity to an altitude of about 140 miles (230 kilometers). Meanwhile, the booster began a series of burns that were meant to bring it down to a soft splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Super Heavy splashdown turned out to be not as soft as SpaceX hoped. Only a few of the booster’s engines were able to light up again for the intended landing burn. The last telemetry from the booster seemed to suggest that it hit the water at almost 700 mph (1,112 kilometers per hour). “We didn’t light all the engines that we expected, and we did lose the booster,” SpaceX commentator Dan Huot said during today’s webcast. “We’ll have to go through the data to figure out exactly what happened, obviously. … But wow, Ship in space!”

For more than 40 minutes, a camera on the second stage transmitted stunning views of Earth as seen from an orbital height. SpaceX also tested the opening and closing of a payload door that’s meant to be used for satellite deployment in orbit — and tried out a refueling procedure that involved transferring liquid oxygen between tanks.

The flight plan for this test didn’t call for doing a complete orbit. Rather, the trajectory was designed to have Ship come down for its own soft splashdown in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean.

The climax of the descent came when Ship’s onboard camera captured the glow of plasma generated by the craft’s descent at speeds in excess of 16,500 mph (26,700 kilometers per hour). The atmospheric heating was expected to reach 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,425 degrees Celsius).

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” SpaceX commentator Kate Tice said of the fiery real-time video, which was transmitted down to Earth via SpaceX’s Starlink network.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk marveled at the sight in a posting to X / Twitter, the social media channel he owns:

A few minutes into the descent, SpaceX lost the signal from Ship — and the prolonged silence led SpaceX’s mission controllers to assume that the ship was lost during re-entry. It’s possible that the second stage’s engines weren’t able to fire properly to reduce the speed of the descent. The mission team will have to analyze the data to determine what went wrong.

“No splashdown today,” Huot said. “But it’s incredible to see how much further we got this time around.”

Huot emphasized that the aim of today’s test was to learn how to improve future Starships, and eventually make them reusable. “The data is the payload on one of these flights,” he said.

SpaceX is already getting ready for the next test flight, and the ones after that. “Hopefully, at least 6 more flights this year,” Musk said in a pre-launch X / Twitter posting. The precise timing will depend on approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration.

NASA is depending on SpaceX to provide a version of Starship that would serve as the landing system for the Artemis program’s first crewed mission to the lunar surface, currently set for 2026. Today, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on its “successful test flight.”

“Starship has soared into the heavens,” Nelson wrote on X / Twitter. “Together, we are making great strides through Artemis to return humanity to the Moon — then look onward to Mars.”

Musk has pointed to Starship as the vehicle that could carry thousands of settlers to Mars in years to come — and he touched upon that theme again after today’s test flight.

“Starship will make life multiplanetary,” he wrote.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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