Musk's huge Starship rocket splashes down in Indian Ocean

By John Mercury June 9, 2024

SpaceX’s Starship has splashed down for a “soft landing” in the Indian Ocean – a success after previous attempts ended in spectacular explosions.

Elon Musk‘s company upgraded software and made other changes for this fourth attempt, which blasted off from Texas for a half lap around the planet.

The billionaire posted on social media: “Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!”

SpaceX
Image:
Starship is the world’s largest and most powerful rocket at nearly 400ft (121m) tall

Starship is the world’s largest and most powerful rocket at nearly 400ft (121m) tall.

The first-stage ‘Super Heavy’ booster successfully detached and landed in the Gulf of Mexico three minutes after lift-off of the unmanned test.

Starship then fired up its engines for a flight around the globe.

About an hour later, it began its crucial re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere: this time there was no catastrophic failure, as occurred at this point in March, and it landed in the sea as planned.

Major step towards SpaceX getting humans to moon and further



Tom Clarke

Science and technology editor

@t0mclark3

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is trying to build the first fully reuseable spacecraft large enough to get humans and cargo to the moon, Mars and beyond.

This fourth test flight of Starship and its ‘Super Heavy’ booster was a major step towards that goal.

The 70-metre booster propelled Starship into orbit and then came back down in one piece – relighting its engines at the last minute to perform a pirouette metres above the Gulf of Mexico, demonstrating for the first time it can land itself.

Starship also survived its re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere – but only just. A livestream of its re-entry showing the super-heated plasma, caused by friction with the thickening atmosphere, eventually melting through the spacecraft’s control flaps.

A fatal design flaw? Or a problem that engineers can solve? The fact the spacecraft remained intact all the way down was significant, and means they will have the data to work out what went wrong.

But the heat is on. NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9bn (£2.2bn) contract to take astronauts to the moon on Starship as part of its Artemis programme as early as 2026. Which does not leave much time for Mr Musk to prove Starship is flightworthy.

Mission control in California erupted in cheers as the team finally achieved its goal.

Each of the previous tests had made it further than the last, before either exploding or disintegrating in the atmosphere.

SpaceX
Image:
Starship made a brief journey into space

The first rocket exploded minutes after lift-off at a height of about 25 miles (40km) in April 2023.

A second test, in November, made it into space for the first time but also exploded.

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April 2023: Starship explodes after lift off

The rocket has hundreds of black tiles to protect it against the extreme heat experienced when passing through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The tests are a stepping stone in the firm’s ultimate goal of making Starship reusable, so it’s important to show the descent of the craft and booster can be controlled.

NASA has ordered two Starships for moon-landing missions later this decade and Musk’s company is already selling tourist trips around the moon.

It’s intended to be more powerful and cheaper than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which has completed more than 300 launches over the last 14 years.

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