SpaceX launch of Starship a 'success', despite explosion minutes after takeoff

SpaceX's Starship lifts off from its launchpad at Boca Chica, Texas on April 20.
SpaceX's Starship lifts off from its launchpad at Boca Chica, Texas on April 20. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX's Starship — the largest and most powerful rocket ever built — has blasted off from its Texas launchpad. Despite exploding minutes after liftoff, the first-of-its-kind flight has been hailed as a success by the company. 

Starship launched from a SpaceX launchpad in Boca Chica, Texas, today (April 20) atop the company's Super Heavy booster rocket, whose 33 Raptor 2 engines carried the vehicle into the stratosphere with a record-breaking 16.5 million pounds (7.5 million kilograms) of thrust.

Shortly after liftoff, an issue with the separation mechanism between the rocket's two stages caused it to enter a spin, and it exploded just minutes later. 

Related: Geomagnetic storm sends 40 SpaceX satellites plummeting to Earth

"As if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation," SpaceX wrote on Twitter.

The launch is the first test of the rocket system that SpaceX has said it will use to transport crews, spacecraft, satellites and cargo to locations in the solar system — both for its own purposes and on behalf of NASA. The U.S. space agency is slated to use Starship's Human Landing System to transport humans to the moon's surface for the first time since 1972 on the Artemis 3 and 4 missions. 

Now that the spaceship has shown it can take off, SpaceX intends to send another Starship into low Earth orbit with a crew on board by the end of the year, but how much the separation mechanism issue will delay or alter these plans is unknown. 

At 394 feet (120 meters) tall, Starship is roughly the length of three passenger jets and is 30 feet (10 m) taller than the Saturn V rocket that first sent the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon in 1969. Starship is also more than twice as powerful as Saturn V, which propelled itself with 7.6 million pounds (3.4 million kg) of thrust.

Starship is designed primarily with cheap and efficient manufacturing in mind, using inexpensive stainless steel for its construction and methane (which SpaceX says can be collected on Mars) to power the rocket. It is designed to be reusable, and can carry a payload of up to 275 tons (250 metric tons) in its non-reusable state — around 10 times that of SpaceX's current Falcon 9 rockets.

This was the rocket's second attempt at taking off. During the first attempt, on Monday (April 17), the rocket was fueled and readied, but the launch was stopped with nine minutes left on the clock, after a frozen valve caused pressurization problems in the Super Heavy booster.

On Sunday (April 16), Musk lowered expectations for the upcoming launch, warning in a Twitter discussion that many problems could arise and that he would consider it a success if the launch just didn't "blow up the launchpad."

"Success is not what should be expected," he said ahead of Monday's scrubbed launch. "It may take us a few kicks of the can here before we reach orbit."

Ben Turner
Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.