Starship Reaches Orbit in Third Test Flight, a Success for SpaceX and the Future of Lunar Travel

As it returned to Earth, the spacecraft likely broke apart or burned up, and the booster was lost in the Gulf of Mexico

A rocket launching above a cloud of smoke into a cloudy sky
SpaceX's third test flight of its Starship rocket was conducted Thursday morning. For the first time, the rocket made it to orbit. Chandan Khanna / AFP via Getty Images

In a test flight on Thursday, SpaceX’s Starship rocket progressed further than it did on any previous test, reaching its planned orbit and achieving its first-ever entry into space.

SpaceX lost contact with Starship during re-entry, 49 minutes into the mission, according to a statement from the company. SpaceX thinks the rocket broke apart as it returned to Earth, per NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel.

During its first two test flights last year, Starship exploded before making it to orbit—around four and 12 minutes after launch, respectively. Thursday’s third attempt marked the spacecraft’s longest flight so far.

SpaceX will review the data from the flight before preparing for future, more frequent launches. “With each flight test, SpaceX attempts increasingly ambitious objectives for Starship to learn as much as possible for future mission systems development,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA program manager for the Starship human landing system, says in a statement from the agency.

Starship is set to play a key role in NASA’s upcoming crewed missions to the moon, beginning with Artemis 3—set to make the first human lunar landing since 1972—and Artemis 4. NASA plans for astronauts to launch to lunar orbit in an Orion spacecraft, then dock with a Starship human landing system to travel to the moon’s surface. In January, Artemis 3 was pushed back to September 2026 at the earliest.

SpaceX has a lot more to accomplish with Starship before then, including more than one orbital flight, refueling in low-Earth orbit and an uncrewed test landing on the moon, writes Science’s Michael Greshko.

Starship launched for its first test last April. When the rocket and its Super Heavy booster were scheduled to separate, a few minutes into the flight, the two parts exploded. During its second launch in November, the booster successfully separated from the rocket, but Starship again exploded before reaching orbit.

The third test lifted off from Boca Chica, Texas, at 8:25 a.m. Central time on Thursday. All 33 of the booster’s engines started up successfully and completed a full-duration burn during ascent, per SpaceX. Starship then powered down all but three of the booster’s engines and ignited the six second stage engines before the vehicles separated.

The Super Heavy booster then started its descent toward the Gulf of Mexico. It lit a few engines for a landing burn before experiencing a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” according to SpaceX—in other words, it was destroyed. Company officials said during a live broadcast that the booster splashed down “hard” in the Gulf, per NBC News’ Denise Chow.

The booster was supposed to make a controlled landing, but it “didn’t light all the engines that we expected, and we did lose the booster,” Dan Huot, SpaceX’s communications manager, said during the live broadcast, per CNN’s Jackie Wattles and Ashley Strickland.

Meanwhile, Starship flew up to its planned orbit and completed several tasks while coasting, including opening and closing its payload door.

The mission also intended to test transferring thousands of pounds of propellant between internal tanks. Those operations were completed, and the team is reviewing the flight data, per NASA. The technology would allow for longer missions into space.

After coasting, Starship re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. But the team then lost contact with SpaceX’s Starlink internet service as well as the tracking and data relay satellite system, according to CNN. This led engineers to believe the spacecraft had broken apart or burned up during re-entry.

The biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship could allow engineers more flexibility in designing instruments for spaceflight, writes Science.

“Traditionally, in planetary science, we are in a very constrained box: You spend a lot of time and money and effort miniaturizing components so that you can fit them on a spacecraft,” Jennifer Heldmann, a NASA research scientist, says to the publication. “If you have something like Starship, essentially, those constraints go away.”

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