Elon Musk's SpaceX launches Starship in uncrewed mission spotted by NASA

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SpaceX's Starship, the world's most powerful rocket, lifted off on its fourth test flight Thursday morning in another major milestone closely watched by NASA, which plans to use the vehicle to land astronauts on the moon. intends to

Standing nearly 400 feet tall and with 33 engines powering its first stage, Starship lifted off from SpaceX's private spaceport in southeast Texas at 8:50 a.m., beginning a journey that the company Hopefully it will continue around the world and end with a controlled splashdown. About an hour after the spacecraft lifted off in the Indian Ocean. No one was on board the spacecraft.

With each flight test, Starship has flown farther and accomplished more milestones. On this flight, Elon Musk's company focused not just on reaching orbital speed, but on controlling the Superheavy Booster and Starship spacecraft as they re-entered the atmosphere. Controlled re-entries will help SpaceX reach its ultimate goal. Flying both, known collectively as starships, back to the launch site to be used again. The company reuses its Falcon 9 rocket booster, but not the second stage. Starship is intended to be fully reusable.

On Thursday's test flight, the booster and spacecraft successfully separated about three minutes after liftoff. The booster then flew to a specific location in the Gulf of Mexico, fired its 13 engines to slow itself down, and gently landed in the water as part of a demonstration that it would land on its future launch site. How will you get off?

About an hour later, the spacecraft reentered the atmosphere, reaching temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike its last test flight, the spacecraft remained stable throughout the descent, falling horizontally like a belly flop, while the frictional fire of the condensing air engulfed the spacecraft.

On the company's live broadcast of the mission, parts of the starship could be seen disintegrating in the intense heat, but the spacecraft fired to right itself and slow its engines for a dramatic soft splashdown into the ocean. Was successful.

“Ideally, we expect this wealth of new data to improve starship re-entry on every flight,” SpaceX's Jesse Anderson said during the company's mission broadcast. “But if it's hard to get to space, it's even harder to come back from space.”

On the X, Musk confirmed that the spacecraft mostly survived re-entry. “Despite the loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, the Starship made it to a soft landing at sea!”

NASA is focusing on the development of the starship, which is at the center of the space agency's flagship moon mission, called Artemis. In 2021, the space agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use the vehicle to carry astronauts to the lunar surface. Since then, SpaceX won another contract, worth just over $1 billion, for another crewed moon landing.

However, to reach the Moon, the starship's propellant tanks need to be refueled by a fleet of tanker spacecraft that will successively launch and dock with the spacecraft in low Earth orbit, a complex task. which was never achieved before.

At the moment, NASA hopes to use a starship to land humans on the moon for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972, by the end of 2026. The starship is safe for human spaceflight. The delay is due to concerns about the heat shield of the Orion spacecraft, which will carry the crew back to Earth from the moon.

NASA has also awarded Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Jeff Bezos, a contract to build a spacecraft to land astronauts on the moon. A company official told CBS' “60 Minutes” that it plans to land a variant of its lunar lander designed to carry cargo, not humans, to the moon next year. (Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

Since Starship's last flight, in March, the company said, “several software and hardware upgrades have been made to increase overall reliability and address lessons learned from Flight 3.”

This test mission made it to space, and the spacecraft successfully separated and traveled more than halfway around the world.

But as its engines shut down and it began coasting, “the vehicle began to lose the ability to control its attitude” or its orientation, the company said. It continued at its normal speed, but a “lack of attitude control” affected re-entry and the spacecraft saw “larger than expected heating in both protected and unprotected positions”. The spacecraft is coated with heat shield tiles to protect it from the extreme temperatures generated during re-entry.

Eventually, the spacecraft burned up 40 miles above the Indian Ocean, about 49 minutes into the flight.

Despite the failure, the flight showed significant progress from its first test flight in April 2023, when several main engines failed during liftoff and more failed during climb. The force of the rocket blew off its launch pad and sent debris flying down the Texas coast. This sparked a lawsuit by environmentalists, who are concerned about the rocket's massive impact on the surrounding area.

For the second flight, SpaceX installed a water flooding system on its pad, which mitigated the explosion, and upgraded the rocket's engines. The vehicle made it through stage separation, and the upper stage engines also fired. But as the booster began to burn its 13 engines to fly the rocket back to Earth, one engine failed, “accelerating toward an unscheduled disassembly” — the phrase SpaceX used to describe the vehicle's loss. Uses to describe. The spacecraft caught fire after leaking, and its autonomous onboard flight termination system destroyed the vehicle.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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