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SpaceX Starship spacecraft 'lost' on atmospheric reentry

March 14, 2024

Starship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, took off from a Texas launch pad for its third test flight. However, the rocket was lost during atmospheric reentry.

SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft, atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket, lifts off on its third launch
Starship is the biggest and most powerful rocket ever builtImage: Joe Skipper/REUTERS

SpaceX's "Starship" rocket took off from the company's Starbase launch site in Texas Thursday, aiming for a successful test flight after the previous two ended with explosions.

While the first part of the mega-rocket's journey was a success, the company confirmed that the rocket system was lost on reentry to the atmosphere.

Starship, the largest rocket ever built, is important in NASA's plans to land astronauts on the moon later this decade and for Tesla billionaire Elon Musk's hopes of eventually colonizing Mars.

How did the test flight go?

A live SpaceX webcast of the liftoff showed the rocketship, which is taller than the Statue of Liberty, rising from the launch tower site near the city of Brownsville.

The Starship system consists of a roughly 70-meter-long (230-foot) booster called Super Heavy and a 50-meter-long upper stage, also called Starship. The company tweeted a video as the latest craft to launch ignited its cluster of powerful Raptor engines for "hot staging separation" 44 miles (72 kilometers) above the Earth. 

The system has been developed to allow both the spacecraft and rocket to be reused after they return to Earth. It had been hoped that both stages would complete a controlled landing in the sea at the end of the approximately hour-long journey.

Starship was coasting in space 15 minutes after liftoff before starting atmospheric reentry some 50 minutes into the mission.

The company confirmed that the rocket had been destroyed during atmospheric reentry after a cruise in low orbit. The ship has been lost," said a SpaceX commentator on the company's livestream.

The launch came less than 24 hours after US federal regulators granted SpaceX a license for the test.

Starship should be able to carry well over 100 tons of cargo in future launches, including SpaceX's Starlink satellites.

What went wrong the last two times?

SpaceX staged its first so-called "integrated" test in April 2023.  It was forced to blow up Starship within a few minutes of the launch, because the two stages failed to separate.

The rocket disintegrated and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico.

A second test in November 2023 did a little better as the booster separated from the spaceship, but both then exploded.

The company euphemistically described the failure as a "rapid unscheduled disassembly."

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rc/wmr (AFP, dpa)