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Third time's the charm: SpaceX's massive Starship reaches space

The SpaceX Starship spacecraft lifts off from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on Thursday.
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
The SpaceX Starship spacecraft lifts off from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on Thursday.

SpaceX has successfully conducted a test launch of its massive Starship rocket. The rocket took off from the company's Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, at 9:25 a.m. ET.

The liftoff was smooth, as all 33 of the Starship's "Super Heavy" booster engines fired in synchrony. The giant rocket lumbered off the pad, climbed out over the Gulf of Mexico and then the Starship separated cleanly from the booster and proceeded to orbit, where it began a series of in-flight tests.

Starship's Super Heavy booster appears to have been lost shortly before landing in the Gulf.

Meanwhile, Starship itself had a smooth ride into space. It broadcast video from high above the Earth, using its Starlink satellite network. The video also captured the beginning of the spacecraft's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere over the Indian Ocean.

The signal was then lost, and Starship did not re-establish contact after the period of re-entry was over. SpaceX says it believes the spacecraft broke apart as it fell back towards Earth.

Nevertheless the test is a major success for SpaceX, which saw the rocket explode in two previous test flights.

"I'm just completely blown away right now, what a day," said Dan Huot, SpaceX communications manager, who was hosting the live webcast.

Starship is the largest rocket ever built. It stands nearly 400 feet tall, and its first stage, known as Super Heavy, is powered by 33 Raptor engines that must all work together to heave it towards orbit.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk believes this massive machine can carry humans to the moon and Mars. Its durable stainless steel construction makes it easy to reuse, at least in theory, and could dramatically reduce the cost of launching satellites and people into orbit. NASA has given billions of dollars to SpaceX to develop Starship as a lunar landing system that could deliver astronauts to the lunar surface.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.