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SpaceX’s Starship survives return to Earth

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SpaceX’s giant Starship rocket survived re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere on Thursday and splashed down in the Indian Ocean as planned during its fourth test mission after launching from south Texas.

The two-stage spacecraft, consisting of the Starship cruise vessel mounted atop its towering Super Heavy rocket booster, broke apart during its last attempt in March to survive a blazingly hot re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.

But the craft survived its re-entry on Thursday, a SpaceX livestream showed.

Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean

“Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk posted on social media after the splashdown.

Starship, stacked atop its Super Heavy booster, blasted off Thursday morning from the company’s Starbase launch site near Boca Chica Village on the Gulf Coast of Texas. It is the latest trial mission in the test-to-failure rocket development campaign of Elon Musk’s company.

The rocket system’s first stage, called Super Heavy, detached from the Starship upper stage three minutes into flight dozens of kilometres above ground, sending the Starship on its way toward space.

Super Heavy headed back towards land and appeared to achieve a soft landing in the Gulf of Mexico. Starship, meanwhile, blasted its own engines to begin its trek around the globe toward the Indian Ocean, a roughly 70-minute trip.

Freefall

There, it began its freefall back to Earth where it endured the intense heat of atmospheric re-entry — the crucial point at which it failed in March.

Designed to be cheaper and more powerful than SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, Starship — standing nearly 122m tall — represents the future of the company’s dominant satellite launch and astronaut business. It is due to be used by Nasa in the next few years to land the first astronauts on the moon since 1972.

Each Starship rocket has made it farther in its testing objectives than previous tests before failing, either by blowing up or disintegrating in the atmosphere.

The rocket’s first launch in April 2023 exploded minutes after liftoff some 40km above ground. During the next attempt in November, Starship reached space for the first time but exploded soon after.

Watch the launch

In its most recent flight in March, Starship made it much farther and broke apart in Earth’s atmosphere as it attempted to return from space halfway around the globe.

The rocket’s flight on Thursday was a repeat of its previous test but with the aim to get farther.

The rocket is covered with hundreds of small black tiles designed to protect against the extreme heat encountered while diving through Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

“The main goal of this mission is to get much deeper into the atmosphere during re-entry, ideally through max heating,” Musk, CEO of SpaceX, wrote on social media on Saturday.

Source: SpaceX

Much is riding on SpaceX’s development of Starship, relied upon by Nasa as it aims to return astronauts to the moon in 2026 in a rivalry with China, which plans to send its astronauts there by 2030. China has made several recent advances in its lunar programme, including a second landing on the moon’s far side in a sample retrieval mission.  — Joey Roulette, (c) 2024 Reuters

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