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SpaceX’s Starship rocket successfully completes its first return from space

SpaceX’s Starship rocket successfully completes its first return from space

SpaceX’s launch of its giant Starship rocket, Thursday, achieved a set of ambitious goals set by Elon Musk, the company’s CEO, before its fourth test flight.

Although the flight was not entirely successful, it provided a signal that Mr. Musk’s vision of building the most powerful rocket ever and making it reusable could once again transform the global space launch industry that his company already dominates. That’s likely to be encouraging to officials at NASA, which will use a version of Starship to transport astronauts to the lunar surface during the Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for late 2026.

Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, offered his congratulations on X, the social networking site owned by Mr. Musk.

“We are one step closer to returning humanity to the Moon via Artemis, and then we look forward to Mars,” he wrote.

The spacecraft was lifted in the upper stage into space, flew halfway around the world, survived the scorching heat of re-entering the atmosphere, and then landed on the water in the Indian Ocean, as planned.

During descent, cameras on the spacecraft captured the colorful glow of the gases heating up beneath it, and at more than 30 miles in altitude, part of the guidance panels began to collapse, but remained intact. The view was then obstructed when debris cracked the camera lens.

“The question is how much space is left of the ship,” said Kate Tice, one of the hosts of the SpaceX broadcast.

But real-time data continued to flow back, via SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites, to the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, all the way until the altitude was reported at 0, that is, to the surface of the Indian Ocean.

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A final maneuver was performed to flip the spacecraft into an upright position just before landing.

“Despite missing several tiles and a damaged covering, the spacecraft was able to land smoothly in the ocean!” Mr. Musk wrote on X.

A crowd of SpaceX employees outside mission control cheered wildly, seeing the result as a validation of the company’s break-it-fix-it approach to engineering.

Earlier in the flight, the rocket’s first stage, a giant Super Heavy booster equipped with 33 engines, was able to perform maneuvers that will return it in the future to the launch site. On this flight, it simulated landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

With the Starship sitting atop what SpaceX calls a very heavy booster, the rocket system is, by almost any measure, the largest and most powerful ever built.

The rocket is the tallest ever, at 397 feet tall, or about 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, including the base.

The rocket also has the most engines ever: The Super Heavy has 33 of SpaceX’s powerful Raptor engines sticking out of its bottom. When these engines lift the spacecraft off the launch pad, they will generate 16 million pounds of thrust at full speed.

For Mr. Musk, the spacecraft is actually a Martian ship. He envisions a fleet of spaceships carrying settlers to the Red Planet.

For NASA, the vehicle will serve as a lunar lander, carrying astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

In the near term, SpaceX also plans to use Starship to deploy the next generation of Starlink Internet communications satellites.

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The most transformative feature of Starship is that it is designed to be completely reusable. This capability has the potential to reduce the cost of sending payloads into orbit, so that sending 100 tons into space in one day could cost less than $10 million, Mr. Musk predicted.

A few weeks ago, after a successful test launch, Mr. Musk wrote on X that for this flight, “the primary goal is to get maximum heating on return.”

In other words, he didn’t want the car to burn.

During launch, the spacecraft reaches orbital speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour while reaching an altitude of 145 miles. When the spacecraft reenters the atmosphere, it is exposed to temperatures of up to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

On Thursday, the Starship was exposed to that heat and then landed in a remote area of ​​the Indian Ocean. Another goal was to softly land the first stage, the super-heavy booster, in the Gulf of Mexico.

During future operational flights, both vehicles are scheduled to return to the launch site and be confined in one piece near the launch tower. These attempts are still in the future.

The previous launch in March reached speeds that were sufficient for the spacecraft to enter orbit for the first time. The ascent included a successful new development: the hot separation, when some of the second stage’s engines ignited before the very heavy booster, or first stage, separated and fell away.

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The spacecraft’s second segment achieved some of its goals during its launch into space, including opening and closing the spacecraft’s payload door and a demonstration of moving propellant between two tanks inside the spacecraft.

But as the spacecraft reached the highest point in its path, it began to spin out of control. Cameras on board captured the orange glow of the hot plasma beneath the spacecraft. About 49 minutes after launch, it crashed, losing communications at an altitude of 40 miles.

Earlier in the flight, the Super Heavy booster was supposed to simulate a landing over the Gulf of Mexico. But six of the 13 engines used for this maneuver stalled early.

SpaceX blamed blockage of propellant flow as the most likely cause of the losses of the spacecraft and Super Heavy booster. The company said it has made changes to address these problems.