SpaceX makes significant progress with third Starship orbital test flight
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SpaceX makes significant progress with third Starship orbital test flight

SpaceX is continuing to make progress on the development of Starship, the largest rocket ever built, with the third test flight Thursday accomplishing considerably more than the previous two tests.

The 400-foot-tall Starship rocket lifted off from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in southeastern Texas at 8:25 a.m. local time. Although SpaceX has been developing Starship for years, this is only the third time the company has attempted an orbital mission.

After liftoff, Starship proceeded through a nominal — aerospace speak for normal — ascend. All 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster performed as designed, and the two stages separated around 2 minutes 45 seconds into the mission. Critically, the launch vehicle nailed a novel stage separation technique called “hot staging,” where the upper stage (also called Starship) lights its engines to push away the Super Heavy booster. The hot-staging technique was performed for the first time, ever, during the second Starship test flight last November.

From there, the Starship upper stage continued its ascent to orbit. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk congratulated the team on X, saying, “Starship reached orbital velocity!”

The booster executed what’s called a boostback burn to adjust its trajectory as it aimed to splash down in the Gulf of Mexico — Falcon 9’s booster performs the same maneuver to vertically land back on Earth — but its engines failed to relight for the landing burn phase. The Super Heavy was subsequently lost.

The company nailed another new milestone after it opened Starship’s payload door for the first time. This capability is crucial for SpaceX’s plans to rapidly deploy many hundreds of next-generation Starlink satellites. Another demonstration, a propellant transfer demo, was also completed, though the company did not go into the results of this test.

Propellant transfer is a crucial part of the company’s plans to return humans to the moon for NASA. As part of SpaceX’s plans for that NASA mission, the company has settled on a mission architecture that could include more than a dozen Starship refueling trips.

Being able to refuel the vehicle is also necessary for a future Mars mission.

Starship continued on its coasting phase, but after around a half hour the company said it wouldn’t attempt to relight the engines to proceed with the test. SpaceX didn’t elaborate on the livestream why it decided not to continue.

Instead, they let gravity do its work, and the Earth’s powerful gravitational forces pulled Starship back through the lower atmosphere. Ultimately, mission controllers failed to reestablish communications with Starship, leading SpaceX’s Dan Huot to announce that they had lost the ship: “No splashdown today, but again just it’s incredible to see how much further we got this time around,” he said.