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Watch SpaceX’s Starship burn brightly as it hurtles toward Earth

SpaceX surprised a lot of people on Thursday morning when its mighty Starship rocket managed not to blow up seconds after liftoff.

The Starship — comprising the first-stage Super Heavy booster and upper-stage Starship spacecraft — enjoyed its most successful test flight yet following two short-lived missions in April and November last year.

In both of those flights, the most powerful rocket ever developed suffered a rapid unscheduled disassembly — SpaceX speak for a massive explosion — but on its third launch from the company’s Starbase facility in southern Texas on Thursday, the Starship just kept on going.

That’s excellent news for SpaceX, and also for NASA, which wants to use the rocket for crew and cargo missions to the moon, and possibly Mars and beyond, too.

During the most recent test flight, SpaceX achieved several of the goals it had set for the mission, including stage separation (for the second time), the booster’s first flip maneuver, and a full boostback burn that sent it toward a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, and getting the spacecraft to an orbital altitude for the first time.

SpaceX shared dramatic footage of the Starship during its high-speed descent over the Indian Ocean about 45 minutes after launch, with the live views provided by SpaceX-made Starlink terminals attached to the spacecraft. The aim was to have the Starship splash down in the sea, but its protective heat shield failed as the vehicle reached speeds of nearly 17,000 mph (around 27,000 kph). The clip below shows the spacecraft heating up during its rapid fall to Earth before the feed finally cuts out. Later reports suggested the Starship disintegrated a short while later.

Starship re-entering Earth's atmosphere. Views through the plasma pic.twitter.com/HEQX4eEHWH

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 14, 2024

Like the rest of the mission, the Starship’s first-ever reentry maneuver will have provided SpaceX engineers with valuable data on heating and vehicle control during hypersonic reentry that it can use to improve the vehicle’s design ahead of the next test flight, which could be coming soon.

“While our team reviews the data collected from this flight, Starship and Super Heavy vehicles are preparing for upcoming flights as we seek to increase our launch cadence throughout the year,” SpaceX said in a message on its website. It also offered “congratulations to the entire SpaceX team on an exciting third flight test of Starship.”

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Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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