SpaceX’s tarship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, exploded during its test flight this afternoon within the hour. The launch window for the 396-feet-tall rocket — which blasted off from the Starbase spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas — opened at 8.28am local time (2.28pm BST). Following a succcessful lift-off, the upper stage failed to seperate, with the combined spacecraft and booster going into an uncontrolled spin before exploding in mid-air.
This was the second attempt to launch both parts of Starship (the upper spacecraft and the lower booster), following the decision to call off a previous go back on Monday following a “pressure system issue” in its first stage that engineers were unable to resolve on-the-fly. Following initital delays to the launch schedule, that attempt was ultimately converted into a “wet dress rehersal”, stopping 40 seconds before lift-off.
While participating in a Twitter Spaces event on Sunday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk had said that a postponement on Monday was a quite possible evenutally for what he called a “risky flight”.
He explained: “It’s the first launch of a very complicated, gigantic rocket. There’s a million ways this rocket could fail. We’re going to be very careful — and, if we see anything that gives us concern, we’ll postpone.”
Mr Musk said that he was looking to keep “expectations low” — and that there was no guarantee that Starship would succeed in reaching an orbital altitude.
While Monday’s “wet dress rehersal” may have helped reveal the pressurant valve issue and confirm that other pre-ignition processes can be performed adequately, there is still the risk that today’s launch may be aborted also.
Mr Musk continued: “If we get far enough away from the launchpad before something goes wrong then I think I would consider that to be a success.”
Following the decision not to follow-through to the ignition of Starship on Monday, SpaceX Quality Systems Engineer Kate Tice said: “It’s unfortunate, of course — we wanted to see fire today and lift off. But that’s ok!
“The point of the countdown is to allow the teams to progress to that T–0 time in a coordinated fashion, and really to unveil any issues prior to the ignition sequence
“So, the countdown did its job today — it allowed us to identify that pressure issue.”
‘World’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed’
Starship actually comes in two parts — the second-stage spacecraft, which is confusingly also called Starship, and the first-stage Super Heavy rocket on which it sits.
Together, SpaceX have said, the pair “represent a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”
They added: “Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, capable of carrying up to 150 metric tonnes fully reusable and 250 metric tonnes expendable.”
The Super Heavy booster stage is powered by 33 liquid methane and liquid oxygen -fuelled “Raptor” engines and can achieve twice the thrust of the Saturn V rocket used by NASA during the Apollo programme. Like the spacecraft, it is also fully reusable — and is designed to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land back at the original launch site.
Today, however, the craft will be doing what SpaceX has called a “hard water landing”. For this reason, the rocket has not been decked out with its landing lights for this launch.
Alongside launching to destinations in space, meanwhile, Starship is also capable of making point-to-point flights between sites on Earth, theoretically allowing passengers to travel anywhere in the world in “one hour or less.”
How to watch the launch
SpaceX is providing livestreamed coverage of Starship’s launch this afternoon. The stream can be watched either directly on the SpaceX website, or via their YouTube channel.
On Monday, SpaceX’s Space Operations Manager Siva Bharadvaj said that the test “will be the first of many as we work towards transitioning Starship from a developmental to an operation programme.
“Our primary objective today is to gather as much data as we can around the fully integrated vehicles — that means the [Super Heavy] booster, and the Starship, and the ground systems.
“While we have flown Starship [the second-stage] in the past, this will be the first attempt of Super Heavy and the first opportunity to validate how the two vehicles work together.”
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Commenting on the earlier launch attempt, British astronaut Tim Peake said: “SpaceX really is thinking big with Starship. This is the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.
“But its ambition goes way beyond its gargantuan size. It is hoped that the rocket will herald a new era of deep space exploration, unlocking the potential for humans to visit other planets.”
The astronaut — who has served on the International Space Station and has ambitions to go to the Moon — added that SpaceX’s programme: “could be the launchpad for hugely exciting scientific research.
“I’m convinced that collaboration with commercial operators like SpaceX is vital for pushing the boundaries and enabling this new era of deep space exploration.”
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