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SpaceX Gets Starship, The World's Biggest Rocket, Launched Only For It To Explode 4 Minutes After Liftoff

A rocket is in midair as it ascends in the sky leaving a trail of smoke and fire in its wake.
The SpaceX Starship lifts off from the launchpad during a flight test from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.
(Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images)
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SpaceX's Starship rocket cleared its launch platform but failed to separate from its booster, exploding four minutes after liftoff during an inaugural test flight on Thursday.

The model spacecraft, which SpaceX says could one day facilitate multi-planetary life, spun in the air several times, then began to plummet before it combusted entirely. A livestream of the launch appeared to show some of the 39 engines on the ship had malfunctioned.

"Starship just experienced what we call a rapid, unscheduled disassembly," said one of the commentators. "As we said, excitement was guaranteed."

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SpaceX staff still cheered as Starship went down in flames. In a statement, the company said, "with a test like this, success comes from what we learn." Successfully lifting the 400-foot-tall rocket off the launch pad is still a big step forward.

The company says it expected the debris to fall somewhere in the gulf of Mexico, and it'll work with local authorities for recovery operations.

Musk has billed the world's largest rocket as a way to transport humans to the moon and Mars. With a reusable design, it could also be a workhorse for transporting Starlink satellites, a key revenue-maker for the company.

The Starship uses a new engine design called Raptor. It's powerful and reusable, but SpaceX has seen a few early failures in previous demonstration tests.

A test launch scheduled for Monday was scrapped at the last-minute due to a frozen valve in the booster. On Thursday, with forty seconds left on the countdown clock, the flight crew paused all operations also due in part to a pressurization issue in the booster.

The decision to use 33 booster engines — more than any other rocket ever made — is a trade-off, says Paulo Lozano, director of MIT's space propulsion laboratory.

Though it's necessary for lifting payloads of up to 250 tons, "having that large number of rocket engines firing simultaneously — it's actually quite hard. I think that's going to be one of the biggest challenges," Lozano said.

Adding to the challenges is the choice of fuel: methane. SpaceX wants to experiment with methane because it's cheaper to produce and easier to handle than hydrogen, the go-to fuel choice for most high-powered rockets.

But to use methane, the rocket's oxidizer oxygen need to be chilled to very low temperatures in order to operate, which is what caused the valve to freeze on Monday.

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"It was a great find by the countdown team, and that's why we have a countdown," said SpaceX quality systems engineer Kate Tice. "We've learned a lot over the last 48 hours, and we're ready to give it another go."

SpaceX seems to understand the risks associated with such a monumental test launch. It's blown up quite a few rockets during testing in the past, a development strategy that's worked well in the long-term.

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