The booster, which was supposed to land in the Gulf of Mexico, also exploded seconds after separating from the space vehicle.
The nearly 400-foot-tall (122 metres) vehicle comprises two elements, both of which are designed to be fully and rapidly reusable — a first-stage booster called Super Heavy and 165-foot-tall (50 metres) upper stage known as Starship.
Saturday’s launch comes after the first attempt to fly the spaceship in its fully-stacked configuration back in April ended in a spectacular explosion over the Gulf of Mexico. The two components had failed to separate during the April launch and Starship never made it to space.
The Starship is the largest rocket ever built that the company hopes will one day help in the colonisation of Mars and the Moon. The Super Heavy booster produces 74.3 meganewtons of thrust, almost double that of the world’s second most powerful rocket, Nasa’s Space Launch System.
Nasa has picked Starship to be the first crewed lunar lander for its Artemis program, and the vehicle has several private moon missions on its docket as well.
Nasa congratulates SpaceX
Bill Nelson, head of the Nasa space agency, which is awaiting a modified version of Starship to land humans on the Moon, said Saturday’s attempt showed progress.
“Congrats to the teams who made progress on today’s flight test,” he said on X, formerly Twitter. “Spaceflight is a bold adventure demanding a can-do spirit and daring innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn — then fly again.”
Booster explodes after separation, contact with Starship lost
A few seconds after the booster separated from Starship, it experienced “rapid unplanned disassembly”. The booster was supposed to land in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Starship, however, went on to successfully enter space before SpaceX lost data link with the spaceship.
It was later confirmed that Starship had also undergone “rapid unplanned disassembly”.
“We have lost the data from the second stage… we think we may have lost the second stage,” SpaceX’s livestream host John Insprucker said.
The Starship was supposed to complete a partial trip around the Earth, almost obtaining orbital velocity, before belly flopping into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
Saturday’s launch was originally supposed to occur on Friday (November 17), but SpaceX delayed the attempt to swap out one of Super Heavy’s grid fins. These waffle-iron-shaped structures help the booster steer its way back to Earth after launch.
Lessons from the first launch
SpaceX was forced to blow up Starship during its first test flight four minutes after launch on April 20, because the two stages failed to separate. The rocket disintegrated into a ball of fire and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, sending a dust cloud over a town several kilometers away.
Learning from its mistakes, SpaceX made several changes to its design.
The biggest change relates to how the spaceship separates from the booster. Starship has been modified to use “hot staging”, which means the upper stage engines will ignite while it is still attached to the booster, an approach that is commonly used in Russian rockets and could unlock far greater power.
Other changes include improvements to vents to decrease the likelihood of an explosion.
The first launch also caused massive damage to the company’s launchpad at Starbase, and this has now been reinforced with high-strength concrete and a system that will jet water to protect against the enormous heat and force generated by launch.
(With inputs from agencies)