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SpaceX: SpaceX launches, lands 4th test launch of its 37-storey Starship roc...

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Published Time: 06.06.2024 - 12:13:12 Modified Time: 06.06.2024 - 12:13:12

Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!<br><br>Congratulations <a href="https://twitter.com/SpaceX?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SpaceX</a> team on an epic achievement!! <a href="https://t.co/UnXbnmZ2pE">https://t.co/UnXbnmZ2pE</a> SpaceX


Despite loss of many tiles and a damaged flap, Starship made it all the way to a soft landing in the ocean!<br><br>Congratulations <a href="https://twitter.com/SpaceX?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SpaceX</a> team on an epic achievement!! <a href="https://t.co/UnXbnmZ2pE">https://t.co/UnXbnmZ2pE</a>

After liftoff, the first stage and second stage separated as planned. The first stage met its goal and splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico (neither the first nor the second stage were planned to be recovered in this test).

Then, after roughly 40 minutes of cruising, the ship began its fiery descent through the atmosphere. 

Nail-biting video showed one of the ship's flaps taking heavy damage. It seemed to be barely holding on. 

Flap feeling the ouch! <a href="https://t.co/SOW9WaYZF7">pic.twitter.com/SOW9WaYZF7</a>

To the surprise of many , including SpaceX's own commentators, it held on to the very end, making it through the atmosphere. The ship fired its landing burn engines and appeared to make a successful splashdown in the Indian Ocean.

Ship 29 makes it through re-entry, minus part of a flap, and does a bellyflop! <br><br>And...............no way! It looked like a flip and burn and soft splashdown?! <a href="https://t.co/9akZzG3V6M">pic.twitter.com/9akZzG3V6M</a>

Getting Starship to work as it should isn't just a flight of fancy for SpaceX: It's a critical component for NASA's return to the moon. A version of Starship called the Human Landing System, or HLS, is needed to land astronauts on the surface of the moon as part of NASA's Artemis program.

A variation of Starship, called the Human Landing System, will dock with the space agency's Orion spacecraft for the planned 2026 Artemis III mission, then shuttle a pair of astronauts to the lunar surface.

SpaceX has met many of its goals in testing this behemoth. The first, in April 2023, was a test to see if it would be capable of lifting off the pad, and it did. However, it severely damaged the launch pad in doing so, and blew up four minutes into its flight.

In the second launch, in November 2023, SpaceX tested its "hot staging" where the rocket of the second stage ignites just before the pair separate. While that was successful, the first stage was lost in an explosion, and the second stage made it to suborbit before it, too, exploded.

The third launch, on March 14, was a test of several more components, including a boostback burn where the first stage uses 13 of its 33 engines to guide it to where it would land (in this case, it would make a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico). However, it had engine issues and failed to achieve a soft water landing.

Starship also reached its full ascent and began to re-enter the atmosphere — which was a test of the tiles that protect the spacecraft as it heats up during re-entry — but an unplanned roll caused it to break up. It also opened and closed its payload bay door.

Perhaps most importantly for NASA , it tested a propellant transfer within the rocket. For the Artemis missions to the moon, SpaceX will have to prove that it can do this between two ships. This was just the first step.

While not everything went as planned in the last launch, SpaceX regarded it as a successful testing of crucial components. That's SpaceX's modus operandi: Test things in the real world.

"SpaceX is doing what SpaceX is good at, which is getting the flight test off and running, and learning from the flight test, taking what they learned and get it into the next one," said Dan Dumbacher, an engineer and former NASA official who is now the CEO of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Ahead of the launch, Canadian Jordan Bimm, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago and a space historian, said there's a lot riding on SpaceX's latest uncrewed test flight of Starship.

"So far, the public has accepted the iterative design approach, and have tolerated the failure-as-progress-toward-success model," he said. "A failure to push further towards a complete, successful flight than previous tests could erode public acceptance and tolerance of the iterative approach."

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black in science. You can send her story ideas at Nicole.Mortillaro@cbc.ca.

It is a priority for CBC to create products that are accessible to all in Canada including with visual, hearing, motor and cognitive challenges.

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