SpaceX Starship rocket lost in second test flight

By Jackie Wattles, CNN

Updated 2:49 PM ET, Sat November 18, 2023
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9:46 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

What just happened

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

The Starship system made it much further into flight than the first attempt in April, but ultimately ended in another explosion.

The rocket and spacecraft safely lifted off the pad, with the Super Heavy booster igniting all 33 of its engines. During the last attempt, multiple engines shut down prematurely.

Then, the Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft successfully separated, as the Starship lit up its engines and pushed away.

That process, however, ended up destroying the Super Heavy booster, which erupted into a ball of flames over the Gulf of Mexico. But the Starship spacecraft was able to briefly continue its journey.

A few minutes later, however, SpaceX was not able to regain a signal from the vehicle. And the company confirmed on its livestream that it was forced to trigger Starship's self-destruct feature.

8:27 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

SpaceX: Second stage may be lost

As Starship was set to enter the coast phase, SpaceX said it was unable to receive data from Starship's second stage.

This means the spacecraft "wouldn't be able wouldn't be able to come back in an hour or so and possibly get ready for reentry," according to the SpaceX live stream.

The company confirmed on its livestream that it was forced to trigger Starship's "flight termination system" — which is essentially a self-destruct feature that SpaceX engaged to prevent the Starship from traveling off course.

SpaceX ended the livestream shortly after.

8:07 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

The Super Heavy booster exploded — but Starship is ok

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

The Super Heavy booster just blew up.

It wasn't supposed to do that. SpaceX was hoping to guide it to a controlled spalshdown in the ocean.

But the spacecraft — the crucial part — is still moving, blaring to faster speeds toward space.

8:08 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

Liftoff! Starship takes flight

The SpaceX Starship launches on Saturday, November 18.
The SpaceX Starship launches on Saturday, November 18. SpaceX

The countdown clock struck zero and the Super Heavy booster attempted to light up its 33 engines, roaring to life and sending a deafening boom across the launch site.

8:04 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

Starships endures Max Q — a key milestone

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket just hit “Max Q,” an aerospace term that refers to the point during flight at which a vehicle experiences its maximum dynamic pressure.

Put simply: It’s when the rocket is moving at very high speed, at a time when the atmosphere is still pretty thick, putting a lot of pressure on the vehicle. 

8:06 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

Super Heavy booster shuts down most its engines, separates from Starship

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

The Super Heavy rocket has expended most of its fuel, and it just separated from Starship, which was riding atop the gargantuan Super Heavy booster.

This marks a crucial moment for SpaceX.

The company was attempting a new method for separating the Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft mid-launch. Instead of using technical thrusters to push the two pieces apart, Starship ignited its own six Raptor engines — while the Super Heavy was still firing a few of its own — to forcefully push itself away.

Super Heavy is now heading back toward the ocean, where it will be discarded.

Starship is now continuing on its mission to space.

7:47 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

This upside-down showerhead could save SpaceX's launchpad

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

The first attempt to send Starship spaceward generated what Musk referred to as a "rock tornado" at liftoff as the sheer force of the rocket blew apart the launchpad. It spewed debris up to 20 acres outside the area that federal regulators initially expected.

And that all happened before the rocket exploded over the Gulf of Mexico.

In the hopes of avoiding a repeat, SpaceX has spent the last several months making some changes at the launchpad.

One key addition is a new water deluge system.

Essentially, it's a massive steel plate that has holes in it, allowing water to shoot up. The "massive super strong steel shower head" — again, Musk's words — will spray water when it's time for liftoff in order to dampen the jarring vibrations and heat given off by Super Heavy's monstrous engines.

The Federal Aviation Administration described the new system like this:

A maximum of approximately 358,000 gallons of potable water would be pushed from ground tanks into the steel plates and released through holes in the plating. The deluge system would apply a large amount of water to rapidly cool and create a barrier between the steel plate and rocket exhaust that will help to absorb sound energy and heat produced by the rocket engines and would allow the steel plate to be reused. It is expected that most of the water would be vaporized by the heat of the rocket engines.
7:45 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

Starship's launchpad is as bizarre as it looks

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

SpaceX's launchpad at Starbase — the name of the company's sprawling facility that has popped up by the Gulf of Mexico at the southernmost tip of Texas — has some unique features.

The large metal arms that look like they're giving the rocket a hug aren't a typical launchpad feature. SpaceX has a unique plan for this structure, which CEO Elon Musk has dubbed "Mechazilla."

Eventually, SpaceX hopes these arms will catch the Starship spacecraft mid-air as it flies back home from a trip to space.

That maneuver has never been tried before — but it's not entirely unlike the method SpaceX uses to land and recover its other rockets.

The company's Falcon 9 rocket pioneered propulsive landing: It became the first to complete a soft touchdown of its booster after a flight in April 2016.

It used its engines, a set of hardware called grid fins to steer itself, and four legs attached to the base to make a gentle landing on a seafaring platform, called a droneship.

SpaceX has since perfected the maneuver, with 230 booster landings under its belt. (And that doesn't even count Falcon Heavy booster landings.)

The main difference for Starship is that — instead of relying on landing legs — SpaceX plans to fly the rocket booster straight into Mechazilla's giant metal arms, catching it before it hits the ground.

SpaceX won't attempt to land Starship or Super Heavy today. Both will instead be discarded into the ocean.

But, before it hits the water, SpaceX will attempt to test out a landing maneuver by reigniting Super Heavy's engines.

That should happen about six minutes and 30 seconds into flight — if all goes well.

Later, the Starship spacecraft may attempt something similar, making use of a belly flop maneuver as it heads in for landing over an hour into its flight.

7:40 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

What is 'hot staging' and when will it happen?

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

SpaceX is trying out something new today.

It's called "hot staging," which is a method for separating the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket after liftoff, when Super Heavy has burned through most of its fuel and is ready to break away.

Almost all rockets go through a process during launch called "stage separation," in which the bottommost rocket booster diverges from the rest of the rocket or spacecraft.

When SpaceX launches its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, for example, the first-stage booster — or the bottommost portion of the rocket — breaks away from the upper part of the rocket less than three minutes into flight.

The Falcon 9 does so using pneumatic pushers" that are housed within the rocket's interstage. That's the black band that can be seen around the middle of the Falcon 9.

Falcon 9 with the black band.
Falcon 9 with the black band. SpaceX

Starship, however, won't use pneumatic pushers. Instead, the Starship spacecraft will simply fire up its own six engines to push itself away from the Super Heavy booster.

Essentially, it's separation by blunt force trauma.

So, Starship's interstage has some large vents installed to direct the blow of the engines — aiming to make this method safe for the booster.

No one is quite sure whether all this will work.

“I would say that’s the riskiest part of the flight," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said of hot staging in October.

Starship's attempt at hot staging should occur two minutes and 41 seconds into the mission.