- By Jonathan Amos
- BBC science correspondent
Elon Musk’s SpaceX company’s gigantic new rocket, Starship, has exploded on its maiden flight.
No one was injured in the unmanned test that took off from the east coast of Texas on Thursday morning local time.
After two to three minutes of flight, the rocket – the largest ever developed – began to spiral out of control and was soon destroyed by onboard charges.
Mr. Musk said his company would try again in a few months.
SpaceX engineers still consider Thursday’s mission a success. They like to “test early and often” and aren’t afraid to break things. They will have gathered a mass of data to work towards the next flight. A second ship is almost ready to take off.
“Congratulations @SpaceX team on an exciting Starship test launch! Learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months,” Musk tweeted.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses rocket launches in the United States, said it would oversee an investigation into the crashes. A spokesperson said it was common practice when a vehicle was lost in theft.
The entrepreneur had tried to temper expectations before the launch. Simply getting the vehicle off the ground and not destroying the launch pad infrastructure would be considered “a victory”, he said.
His wish was granted. Starship cleared its launch complex at the US-Mexico border and accelerated as it headed for the Gulf of Mexico. But it was obvious within about a minute that not everything was going to go as planned.
As the rocket climbed higher and higher, it could be seen that six of the 33 engines at the base of the vehicle had either shut down or burned out.
And three minutes into the flight, it was pretty obvious the end was near. When the two halves of the vehicle should have come apart, they were actually still connected – and drifting off course.
At launch plus four minutes, as Starship lost altitude, a large explosion ripped through the blue sky, the result of computers or someone on the ground, triggering the vehicle’s Flight Termination System (FTS).
“With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today, which will help us improve future Starship flights,” said SpaceX in a statement.
Starship’s upper segment, also known as the ship, had taken off in short hops before, but this was the first time it had been launched with its lower stage.
This huge thruster, simply called Super Heavy, was fired while attached to its launch pad in February. However, her engine group on this occasion was reduced to half capacity.
If, as promised, SpaceX went for a 90% boost on Thursday, the stage should have delivered something close to 70 meganewtons.
That’s twice the thrust of the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.
The spacecraft may not have destroyed its launch pad, but later footage indicated that the forced departure caused quite a bit of damage to concrete surfaces.
The mission plan had been to send the ship on an almost complete revolution of the Earth, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific, a few hundred miles north of Hawaii.
It was not expected that the ship or Super Heavy would be recovered. However, in the long run, that’s the plan. The idea is to land both halves, refuel and relaunch them – over and over again.
If this can be achieved, it will be transformative.
Starship has a potential in-orbit payload performance of over 100 tons per flight. When this is combined with the low cost of operation – mainly, just the cost of fuel – it should open the door to an exciting future.
“In the industry, there is certainly a very high expectation for the disruptive potential of this vehicle,” said space consultant Carissa Bryce.
“Its huge capacity, from a commercial point of view, could be important. A very large human-sized vehicle could be important for the emergence of space tourism. The other element is that the vehicle is inexpensive. So you have a vehicle with two transformational aspects – massive capability and, potentially, at a very low price,” she told BBC News.
The contractor will initially use Starship to launch thousands more satellites for its broadband internet constellation in the sky – Starlink.
Only when engineers are confident in the reliability of the vehicle will they allow people to fly on the rocket.
The first mission is already scheduled. It will be commanded by billionaire American businessman and fast jet pilot Jared Isaacman. He once flew into space in a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
The first flight around the Moon will be made by Japanese fashion billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. He will take eight artists with him as part of his DearMoon project.
The American space agency, NASA, wants to use a version of Starship to land its astronauts on the surface of the Moon.
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