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Starship’s explosive debut: SpaceX launches the most powerful rocket in history, showcasing a successful failure typical of many first liftoffs.


On April 20, 2023, a new SpaceX rocket called Starship exploded over the Gulf of Mexico three minutes after its first-ever flight. SpaceX calls the test launch a success, despite the fiery end result. Like a space policy expertI agree that the “rapid unplanned disassembly” – the term SpaceX uses when its rockets explode – was a very successful failure.

The full Starship stack consists of a Starship spacecraft (in black) on top of a rocket called Super Heavy (in silver) and stands nearly 400 feet tall.
Hotel Marmot/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The most powerful rocket ever built

This launch was the first fully integrated test of SpaceX’s new Starship. Starship is the most powerful missile ever developed and is designed to be completely reusable. It consists of two different stages or sections. The first stage, called Super Heavy, is a collection of 33 separate engines and supplies more than double the thrust of a Saturn V, the rocket that sent astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

The first stage is designed to get the rocket to about 40 miles above Earth. Once Super Heavy’s job is done, it must separate from the rest of the craft and land safely back on the surface to be used again. At that point, the second stage, called the Starship spacecraft, would have to ignite its own engines to launch its payload — be it humans, satellites, or something else — into orbit.

An explosive first flight

While parts of Starship have been previously testedlaunching on April 20, 2023, was the first fully integrated test with the Starship spacecraft on top of the Super Heavy rocket. Had it been successful, it would have separated from the upper stage and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico as soon as the first stage ended. Starship would then have moved on and finally crashed 150 miles off the coast of Hawaii.

During SpaceX’s live stream, the team stated that the primary goal of this mission was to get the rocket off the launch pad. It achieved that goal and more. Starship flew ahead more than three minutesby what engineers call “max Q” – the moment when a rocket experiences the most physical stress from acceleration and drag.

A cloud of fire and smoke in the sky with pieces falling to earth.
The Starship spacecraft and Super Hheavy rocket failed to separate in flight, so engineers blew up the entire rocket.
AP Photo/Eric Gay

According to SpaceX, a few things went wrong with the launch. First, several engines failed sometime before the point at which the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy rocket would separate. The two stages were also unable to separate at the predetermined time, and with the two stages stuck together, the rocket began tumbling from side to side. It is still unclear what exactly is the cause of this malfunction.

Starship is almost 120 meters long and weighs 4.9 million kilograms. An out-of-control rocket full of highly flammable fuel is a very dangerous object, so to prevent damage, SpaceX engineers activated the self-destruct mechanism and blew up the entire rocket over the Gulf of Mexico.

All modern rockets have mechanisms built into them that allow engineers to do that destroy the missile safely in flight If necessary. SpaceX itself has blown up many of its own missiles during testing.

Success or failure?

Getting into space is difficult, and it’s not at all uncommon for new rockets to experience problems. Both in the past two years South Korea And Japan have attempted to launch new rockets that also failed to reach orbit. Commercial companies such as virgin job And Relativity space have also recently lost missiles. None of these were manned missions, and in most of these failed launches, flight engineers purposefully destroyed the missiles after problems occurred.

SpaceX’s approach to testing is different from that of other groups. The company philosophy is to fail quickly, find problems and fix them with the next missile. This is different from the lake Traditional approach taken by organizations like NASA who spend much more time identifying and planning for potential problems before attempting a launch.

The traditional approach is usually slow. NASA’s Space Launch System — the rocket that will take astronauts to the moon as part of the Artemis program — took more than 10 years to develop before its first launch last November. SpaceX’s method has allowed the company to go much faster, but could be more expensive due to the time and resources required to build new rockets.

SpaceX engineers will try to identify the specific cause of the problem so they can fix it before the next test launch. With this approach, launches like this first Starship test are successful failures that will help SpaceX achieve its ultimate goal of sending astronauts to Mars.

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