SpaceX’s Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, lifted off for a second test flight on Saturday and reached an altitude of about 90 miles above Earth before engineers lost contact with it.
The flight did not achieve all of SpaceX’s objectives, but it overcame some of the problems that affected an earlier launch, showing that Elon Musk’s private space company is making progress toward its ambitious spaceflight goals.
The nearly 400-foot-tall vehicle is being built to carry astronauts to the moon for NASA, and perhaps some day to send humans to Mars.
It flew for the first time on April 20 from a SpaceX launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. That flight ended after a few minutes when failing engines caused the rocket to tumble out of control at a high altitude.
Here’s what else you need to know about how the flight went:
SpaceX made various changes to the rocket, and their efforts seem to have paid off for this flight. All 33 engines appeared to fire through the key early phases of the flight, and the upper stage separated from the booster while continuing its flight for a number of minutes, a sign that some earlier problems with the vehicle had been successfully addressed.
The Super Heavy booster exploded shortly after the separation. The flight plan had called for the booster to test fire its engines for a landing, but then splash and sink into the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite that blast, the upper Starship stage, which is to carry astronauts, satellites and other cargo in the future, continued to travel. According to an indicator from SpaceX’s live blog, the vehicle reached an altitude of about 90 miles, putting it in space.
About 12 minutes after liftoff, John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer said “We think we may have lost the second stage.” He added that an automated detonation had likely occurred.
If the flight had been fully successful, Starship would have completed a partial trip around the Earth before belly-flopping into the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii.
Starship is actually two vehicles — the Super Heavy rocket booster and the Starship spacecraft. The company intends both to be fully reusable in the future.
In April, during the first Starship flight, six of the 33 engines on the Super Heavy booster failed, causing the whole rocket to tumble before operators on the ground ordered it to self-destruct.