SpaceX launches its massive Starship rocket in key third test flight

SpaceX’s next-generation mega rocket launched Thursday morning, thundering into orbit on a key test flight to demonstrate new technologies and techniques that will be crucial on future missions to the moon and beyond.

The flight is the rocket’s third and most ambitious such test, according to SpaceX. The event is being closely watched because the nearly 400-foot-tall booster, known as Starship, is expected to play an important part in NASA’s return-to-the-moon program.

The rocket lifted off at 9:25 a.m. ET from SpaceX’s Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas.

Roughly three minutes into the flight, the first-stage booster, known as Super Heavy, successfully separated from the upper-stage Starship spacecraft. Super Heavy is expected to fall back to Earth and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico.

The flight is expected to last a little over an hour, but SpaceX has already achieved a major milestone over previous Starship tests: The company confirmed roughly 10 minutes in that the spacecraft successfully reached orbit.

With this third test, SpaceX is hoping to demonstrate that Starship can carry out a controlled re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere before splashing down in the Indian Ocean. Before that finale, the test also includes several different objectives from the rocket’s previous two outings. SpaceX is attempting to fire one of Starship’s Raptor engines while in space, open and close the vehicle’s payload door and transfer propellant between two of Starship’s tanks in orbit.

Many of these techniques could help SpaceX carry out future missions to deploy satellites, as well as set the stage for moon missions as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

While SpaceX eventually plans to make Starship a fully reusable vehicle, that is not the case for this test flight.

Starship was selected by NASA to carry astronauts to the lunar surface in the upcoming Artemis III mission, which could launch in 2026.

Starship’s debut flight last April was a destructive one, ending with the rocket exploding several minutes after liftoff. A second Starship launch in November achieved several milestones, including separation of the first-stage booster and upper-stage spacecraft, but the company ultimately lost contact with the vehicle.

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