SpaceX’s Starship Lost Shortly After Launch of Second Test Flight

SpaceX’s Starship failed its test flight this morning, when the automated flight termination system triggered following a loss of contact with the craft about 10 minutes into its flight. This marks the company’s second attempt at sending a Starship on a near-orbital flight, a 90-minute voyage that would have gone almost around the world. An initial test flight also failed in April, exploding four minutes after liftoff and flinging debris throughout the surrounding area.

As before, today’s launch took place at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. But this time, all of the 33 Raptor engines appeared to ignite properly, and the Starship’s stage separation from the Super Heavy booster worked as planned. The vehicle survived max q, or the point in its ascent when it’s under the most pressure from the atmosphere and its own velocity. About three minutes after launch, the Starship successfully separated from the Super Heavy booster, after which the booster exploded, something SpaceX officials typically refer to with the euphemism “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” or RUD.

SpaceX’s mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

“So far today has been incredibly successful, even with the RUD of the Super Heavy booster,” said Kate Tice, SpaceX’s quality systems engineer on the company’s webcast.

But before Starship could reach orbit, SpaceX mission control lost contact with it and stopped receiving data. At about 12 minutes into the flight, SpaceX triggered the automated flight termination system—they had to abort and make the second stage undergo RUD, too.

If Starship had successfully flown, it would have reached an altitude of about 146 miles, and was planned to splash down at around 8:30 Central time off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii.

This is the second time that a Starship test flight has gotten off to a promising start, but failed several minutes into the flight. According to a statement on the company’s website, SpaceX later determined that in the first few minutes of the April flight, propellant leaked from the Super Heavy booster and caused fires that severed the connection with the primary flight computer. That’s why the upper stage and booster failed to separate, SpaceX concluded. Engineers lost control of the vehicle and had to abort, blowing the rocket up with the flight termination system.

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