Science

Elon Musk’s Starship Rocket Just Exploded, Minutes Into Its Test Launch

SpaceX’s most powerful rocket partially failed its latest test.

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The SpaceX Starship lifts off from the launchpad during a flight test from Starbase in Boca Chica, T...
PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP/Getty Images

This morning, a much-delayed moment that space fanatics have breathlessly anticipated finally arrived: SpaceX conducted an orbital launch test flight of its Starship rocket, currently the world’s most powerful rocket, which can fire up to around 17 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Once fully operational, it could become the world’s most powerful operational rocket.

Unfortunately, today was not that day. While the system successfully cleared the launch pad, it quickly exploded before the Starship rocket was able to separate from the Super Heavy booster, a critical component of the test launch. This occurred minutes after lifting off from the launch pad in South Texas.

“This does not appear to be a nominal situation,” SpaceX broadcasters announced as it happened.

Thankfully, there were no fatalities, and the launchpad itself remained intact. SpaceX employees who had gathered for the launch cheered, and SpaceX broadcasters hailed the attempt a success.

The Starship prototype could soon lift off in a critical test.

SpaceX

SpaceX has high hopes for the massive rocket. Musk’s company hopes the rocket can deliver its Starlink internet satellites to space — and even whisk people to the Moon and Mars. As part of a $2.89 billion contract with NASA, Starship will carry humans to the Moon during its upcoming Artemis missions in 2025 and beyond.

But SpaceX is still a ways away from these cosmic dreams. Starship must be proven safe before a crew can even step inside — spaceflight can quickly turn fatal, Erik Seedhouse, an associate professor in spaceflight operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, tells Inverse.

“It’s supremely risky, and there’s so, so many things that can go wrong,” he says. “Especially with something like [Starship] where it’s so big, and they’re really pushing the envelope in terms of what can be done.”

What is an orbital test?

Orbital tests like this one help SpaceX determine whether Ship 24 can safely circle the Earth and plop into the sea.

If all went well, nearly three minutes into the flight, Booster 7 would have dropped into the Gulf of Mexico. Ship 24 would have continued on, traveling around the planet before plopping into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Hawaiian island Kauai.

All in all, the whole shebang would have taken about 90 minutes, according to a SpaceX document submitted to the Federal Communications Commission. That’s a lot shorter than recent orbital flights, including NASA’s uncrewed Boeing Starliner test in May 2022, which spanned six days and included a pit stop at the International Space Station.

The failed test wasn’t all that surprising. Elon Musk had given Ship 24 about a 50 percent chance of completing the orbit during the first test, and SpaceX is currently constructing multiple Starship prototypes and aims to run a series of trials — this should give the company around 80 percent odds of reaching orbit in 2023, Musk said in an interview last month.

Booster 7, shown traveling here, can produce up to 17 million pounds of thrust.

SpaceX

Starship last took to the skies in May 2021. SN15, a three-engine upper-stage prototype, traveled up just over 6 miles and dropped back to Earth.

Since then, SpaceX has run through various tests, including firing up 31 of its 33 Raptor engines last February. Before the big day, the company also needed a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has asked the company to jump through various hoops in preparation.

The company could also face lawsuits over potential environmental concerns — further delaying the much-anticipated test. Boca Chica locals have already criticized Musk’s company for littering the area with rocket debris and threatening wildlife.

What we knew could go wrong with the Starship orbital test

The Booster 7 engines could cause damage before the vehicle even gets off the ground.

SpaceX

Rockets come with a dizzying array of complex components.

SpaceX successfully fired 31 of its engines in a static fire test on Feb. 9, but the team failed to get two of them to ignite. While the plan was to light all 33, the “team turned off 1 engine just before start & 1 stopped itself, so 31 engines fired overall,” Elon Musk tweeted. “But still enough engines to reach orbit!”

Even if the rocket managed to lift off unscathed, there were other challenges it could have encountered on its journey. Around 30 to 60 seconds after launching, rockets accelerate through the atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour and face massive amounts of pressure.

Unfortunately, precise atmospheric conditions can’t be predicted beforehand — which means that the vehicle could face serious risks. “You can do all the computer simulations in the world, but it’s almost impossible to factor in the changing winds as the spacecraft goes higher up in the atmosphere,” Seedhouse says.

What’s next for Starship and SpaceX?

NASA plans to send astronauts to the moon aboard the Starship.

SpaceX

SpaceX ultimately wants Starship to carry up to 100 passengers on trips to Mars to create a “self-sustaining city” on the Red Planet, Musk said in 2019.

In the coming years, though, Starship will stick to Moon travel. In addition to the NASA contract, the massive vehicle will fly billionaires and a group of artists — including DJ Steve Aoki — around the Moon.

SpaceX will also team up with tech entrepreneur and billionaire Jared Isaacman on a series of missions that the company estimates will kick off this coming summer — culminating in the first crewed Starship flight, though the company has shared few details on this trip.

Overall, SpaceX hasn’t offered much information on how Starship will support crews up in the cosmos, according to Seedhouse. He imagines it could look somewhat similar to the tech on the company’s Dragon capsules — but scaled up for a (much) larger vehicle. “In terms of the details, SpaceX tends to keep that very close to the chest,” he says.

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