June 24, 2024

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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 massive Starship rocket on Thursday achieved a set of ambitious goals set by Elon Musk, the company’s CEO, ahead of the fourth test flight.

The Starship spacecraft lifted off from the launch pad at 7:50 a.m. in South Texas, near Brownsville, into the sky.

After the spacecraft descended from the upper stage, it was able to make a gentle landing in the Gulf of Mexico while the spacecraft in the second stage traveled halfway around the world, surviving scorching temperatures upon re-entry and making a controlled landing. , in the Indian Ocean.

The journey has not been flawless, and difficult technical hurdles remain. The successes, which exceed what was accomplished during the previous test flight in March, offered optimism that Mr. Musk could realize his vision of a rocket that is the largest and most powerful yet fully reusable.

The result also helps validate the company’s “break it and fix it” approach to engineering, with steady progress since the first test launch in April last year when the rocket had to be deliberately destroyed when it veered off course.

Daniel L. said: “They are showing the ability to make progress more quickly than we thought they were capable of,” said Dombacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a professional society for engineers. “They have a team that knows what they are doing, is willing to learn, and, just as importantly, is not beholden to previous assumptions.”

If the spacecraft can fly repeatedly, more like a jet than a traditional rocket, it could transform a global space launch industry that SpaceX already dominates.

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Today’s flight is also likely to be encouraging for officials at NASA. They are counting on SpaceX to provide a version of Starship to transport astronauts to the lunar surface during NASA’s 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.

After reaching an altitude of about 130 miles, the spacecraft returned to Earth, as planned, and reentered the atmosphere. Cameras on the spacecraft captured a vibrant glow from the gases heating underneath.

At an altitude of about 30 miles, pieces began peeling away from one of the guidance panels near the top of the spacecraft, with the panels still working. The camera’s view was then obstructed when debris cracked the lens.

“The question is how much of the ship is left?” said Kate Tice, a SpaceX broadcast host.

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

The final engine burn flipped the spacecraft into a vertical position just before landing.

“From south Texas to the other side of Earth, the spacecraft is in the water,” said Dan Huett, another SpaceX webcast host. “what a day.”

Damaged cover and loss of refractory tiles indicate that significant upgrades are still needed. Otherwise, the spacecraft, like the space shuttles, would require extensive refurbishment after each flight.

“But it’s all fixable,” Mr. Dombacher said. “It’s a step in the right direction, and there are more steps to take.”

Earlier in the flight, the rocket’s first stage, the giant Super Heavy booster was also able to perform maneuvers that will return it in the future to the launch site. On this flight, it simulated such a landing by landing in the Gulf of Mexico. All three previous attempts at this feat ended in explosions.

With the Starship vehicle placed atop the Super Heavy booster, the rocket is the tallest ever — measuring 397 feet tall, or about 90 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, including the base.

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 generate up to 16 million pounds of thrust at full throttle. On this flight, one of the engines failed to ignite, but that did not prevent it from continuing its journey into space.

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. On Thursday he did not.

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The Starship launches attracted spectators to the SpaceX launch site near the southern tip of Texas.

On Thursday, they sat on beach chairs or atop pickup trucks and campers listening to SpaceX broadcasts. As the countdown continues.

“What they are doing here is crazy,” said Chris Thomassen, who traveled from the Netherlands to watch the launch, camped for three days on the beach near the launch pad, and then moved to a place on the edge of the safety zone. Exclusion zone.

Robert Opel, 56, set up a tent outside the launch site four days before the launch on Thursday. He was so determined to see liftoff up close that he arranged to travel across the Rio Grande to Mexico, located just a few miles from the launch pad.

“It’s like all your birthdays rolled into one day,” Mr. Opel said, adding that this was the fourth of four Starship launches he had witnessed.

Eric Lipton Contributing reporting from Boca Chica, Texas.