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SpaceX Starship rocket survives reentry mostly intact in fourth test flight


The mighty Starship rocket that SpaceX intends to use to transport astronauts to the moon and beyond has made another largely successful test flight, blasting off and returning to Earth somewhat intact. The uncrewed test today was the fourth launch of the Starship to date, following a third test in March in which the Starship launched, but was lost during reentry.

The rocket launched from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Texas at around 9 a.m. ET this morning, Thursday January 6. The Starship lifted off from Texas and traveled through the atmosphere. It then flew over the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. It traveled for around 40 minutes. The ship then came back through the atmosphere for a reentry, splashing down in the Indian Ocean.

Liftoff of Starship!

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 6, 2024

During the descent, debris was visible streaming off one of the Starship’s flaps, which blocked camera views of the ship as it came through the atmosphere. “It’s potentially hanging on by a couple of bolts and threads,” the commentators said, as the vehicle was clearly experiencing damage on the way down. However, SpaceX emphasized that the aim of the test was to collect data on the vehicle, and that was possible even though it was not fully intact.

“Ultimately, the data is the payload today,” SpaceX commentators said. “The goal was to get as far through this high heat reentry as possible.”

The flip maneuver, in which the Starship flips itself into a vertical position, did appear to be executed as the vehicle came down in an upright position, at least at one point. The ship did perform a landing burn, which is the first time the Starship has gotten this far in its process.

The test also included the separation of the first stage, or booster, which provides propulsion to the Starship as it rises through Earth’s atmosphere. Like on SpaceX’s flagship rocket, the Falcon 9, the idea is for the Starship’s booster to be ejected once it is no longer needed, and then to land either in the ocean or on land so it can be reused. Falcon 9 rockets now successfully land and reuse boosters on a routine basis, which helps to reduce costs in the long run. Today’s test included the first successful splashdown of Starship’s first stage, called the Super Heavy booster, which splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico.

Overall, the fourth test flight of the Starship will be hailed as a success, with the vehicle making it off the ground, into the air, and back down to Earth again, though more work will need to be done to make it safe for regular use. Still, the test shows significant progress from previous tests and will inspire hopes for the next round of testing.

“That was incredible!” said SpaceX’s Dan Huot as the Starship performed its landing maneuever. “I can’t wait for the next one.”

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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