SpaceX's mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, November 18, 2023.
SpaceX's mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, November 18, 2023. Image Credit: AP

SpaceX's colossal Starship spacecraft exploded during its second major test flight on Saturday, but achieved new milestones that advance Elon Musk's crucial deep-space launch system.

As the Starship spacecraft was heading to near orbit, it appeared to burst apart on an X livestream.

Starship 'likely lost'

Later, the hosts of the livestream said that Starship likely had been lost, believing that the vehicle's flight termination system activated while the vehicle was attempting to reach near orbit. The flight termination system is used to destroy a rocket if it starts to malfunction or deviates from its flight path during a launch.

"With a test like this, success comes from what we learn," SpaceX wrote on X. "Today's test will help us improve Starship's reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary."

Booster explodes mid-air

The largest and most powerful rocket ever developed, Starship successfully took off a little after 7am from SpaceX's Starbase launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas, riding atop its massive Super Heavy booster. The flight appeared to begin smoothly, with the vehicle clearing the launch tower. The two vehicles separated as planned a little more than two and a half minutes into the mission, a feat that the SpaceX failed to accomplish on the vehicle's first test flight in April.

Swiftly after separation, however, the Super Heavy booster burst apart for reasons not immediately clear. Starship continued onward on its path to reach near orbit and eventually reaching space for the first time. But, roughly eight minutes into the flight, a large cloud of debris could be seen surrounding the Starship spacecraft, and SpaceX said it had lost data from the vehicle.

"As far as test flights go, I think that it certainly was more of a successful launch than the first test flight," Carissa Christensen, CEO of space analytics firm BryceTech, said.

SpaceX, known for its iterative approach to rocket development, is likely to view the overall flight as a success given the new milestones it achieved.

"First stage looked beautiful with 33 Raptor engines firing," SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said on the livestream. "We got the hot staging, you know the thing that we really wanted to see."

Rare technique introduced

For this flight, SpaceX introduced a rare technique known as hot staging for when Starship and Super Heavy break apart. Starship's engines briefly ignited while still attached to the Super Heavy booster, giving it a slight kick as the two vehicles separated.

The fact that all of the Super Heavy booster's 33 Raptor engines worked throughout the flight was also a significant improvement from the last mission, which experienced multiple engine failures during the climb to space.

"Strapping that many engines together and making them all work flawlessly is a really huge accomplishment," Chad Anderson, founder and managing partner of space investment firm Space Capital, said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said by email that a mishap occurred during the launch that caused a loss of the vehicle, though no injuries or public property damage were reported.

Colossal rocket

Starship is designed to carry payloads and people to distant destinations like the moon and Mars, making it central to Musk's vision of starting a settlement on the Red Planet.

Numerous customers and investors are closely watching Starship's progress. NASA has shelled out roughly $4 billion to help turn Starship into a lunar lander that will return the space agency's astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than half a century. After Saturday's test, Bill Nelson, NASA's administrator, congratulated SpaceX on the test and the improvements Starship had made.

Starship will also be responsible for launching the company's next-generation Starlink satellites, meant to increase capacity of the internet-from-space initiative that SpaceX hopes will generate billions in revenue.

Personally important to Musk

The future of Starship is also personally important to Musk, who's seen his other businesses struggle. Margins are declining at Tesla Inc. and ad revenue is plummeting on X, the social media platform he owns. Fallout from a Musk X post endorsing antisemitic views on the platform continued to spread this week, including a rebuke from the White House and criticism from Tesla investors as advertisers flee his social media platform.

SpaceX has blown past many of its self-imposed deadlines for Starship, making it unclear when the rocket system will be fully operational. SpaceX still has a laundry list of items to accomplish to turn the rocket into the game-changing vehicle that's been promised. Those items include figuring out life support systems, how to refuel Starship in orbit, and how to land the spacecraft on the surface of the moon.

It's unclear when Starship will launch again, but experts will be looking to see if SpaceX can continue to improve.

"This is the second of what will be many test experiences," Christensen said, adding, "I imagine the next thing the team might be looking at is getting Starship to re-enter" Earth's atmosphere.