SpaceX Starship successfully takes off on third test flight

The SpaceX rocket intended to take humans back to the moon and one day to Mars completed its third and most successful test flight Thursday morning.

The Starship rocket, stacked atop a Super Heavy booster, lifted off flawlessly at 6:25 a.m. PDT from the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, igniting all 33 of the booster's engines and propelling the Starship into space.

Less than three minutes later, the booster successfully separated from the rocket in what Elon Musk's company calls a “hot stage” sequence, meaning the Starship's engines turned on just before separation. The maneuver is intended to improve the rocket's payload.

The spacecraft then entered a 'coastal phase', flying through space for many minutes before re-entering Earth's atmosphere towards a planned landing in the Indian Ocean. The company eventually lost contact with the spacecraft and about 65 minutes into the flight it said the rocket was lost.

The company called the third flight a success, noting that it was the rocket's longest flight to date.

“This was a big step forward. It was a huge improvement over the last test flight. It wasn't a 100% success, but I would still call it a success because it achieved many of the milestones SpaceX set,” said Laura Forczyk, executive director of space consultancy Astralytical.

During the flight, Starship completed several objectives, including opening and closing payload doors that will be used to launch future satellites. It also ordered tons of propellant to be transferred from one tank to another. The company will review the data to determine if the transfer has occurred.

'A starship will make life multiplanetary' Musk tweeted after the test flight was over.

The two previous launches of earlier versions of Starship ended in explosions not long after launch, but gave scientists valuable information about the rocket system, which is by far the most powerful ever built. SpaceX approval assured from the Federal Aviation Administration Wednesday to conduct the final flight.

Like the company's Falcon rockets, the Starship and Super Heavy booster are both designed to return to Earth and be reusable, which Musk says will dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. On Thursday, SpaceX had hoped to bring the booster back down in a controlled return to the Gulf of Mexico, but that was not possible.

Starship is the key to the company's financial security. The spaceship and the Super Heavy booster it is attached to are intended to eventually replace the company's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. It is intended not only to ferry cargo and crew to the lunar surface, but also to launch more and larger Starlink broadband satellites than the company's existing line of rockets can do.

Last April, the company launched the Starship rocket for the first time. The rocket cleared the launch pad, at the southern tip of Texas, near the Mexican border, and hovered over the Gulf of Mexico for a few minutes before exploding.

SpaceX later said that a propellant leak caused several engines to fail and that the explosion was caused by the rocket's autonomous flight termination system, which is designed to let the rocket self-destruct if its software senses it is going off course or its performance is unsafe.

The launch pad was also damaged in the explosion, sending debris flying over nearly 1,000 acres.

SpaceX's second test flight in November lasted about twice as long, giving the booster and spacecraft plenty of time to separate. The booster exploded shortly after it disappeared, followed shortly after by Starship. That explosion was also due to the missile's autonomous flight termination system.

Starship, with its Super Heavy booster, is the largest and most powerful rocket ever developed, bigger than the Saturn V that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon and with about twice the thrust. If the company completes its mission to the moon, Musk will be one small step closer to his goal of eventually taking humans to Mars. The company already has a contract with NASA to take people to the moon.

The aerospace company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., typically doesn't view in-flight failures during rocket development as major setbacks, but rather as learning opportunities that help further develop the vehicles.

Regardless of the outcome of the latest mission, SpaceX still has a long way to go before humans can take a trip to Mars. Problems still to be solved include figuring out life support systems and how to land the spacecraft in one piece.

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

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