SpaceX's incredibly powerful Starship lost in the Indian Ocean after reaching orbit for 1st time

Starship just after launching from its Boca Chica, Texas launchpad on March 14, 2024.
Starship just after launching from its Boca Chica, Texas launchpad on March 14, 2024. (Image credit: Brandon Bell via Getty Images)

SpaceX's Starship rocket just reached orbit for the very first time, but now it's gotten lost upon reentry. 

The giant rocket — the biggest and most powerful ever built — blasted off from its launchpad in Boca Chica, Texas, on Thursday (March 14) at 9:25 a.m. EDT (1:25 p.m. GMT), entering the stratosphere just minutes later with a record-breaking 16.5 million pounds (7.5 million kilograms) of thrust. Standing 394 feet (120 meters) tall, Starship can carry 10 times the payload of SpaceX's current Falcon 9 rockets. 

The launch is the rocket's third test flight, and its first one to reach orbit; the previous two ended in dramatic explosions of the craft's 33-engine Super Heavy booster rocket that culminated in an environmental lawsuit. After conducting a number of maneuvers during the spacecraft's hour-long flight in orbit, mission control reportedly lost contact with Starship as it reentered Earth's atmosphere somewhere over the Indian Ocean.

Starship likely broke up or exploded over the ocean, SpaceX confirmed.

"The team has made the call that the ship has been lost, so no splashdown today," Dan Huot, SpaceX's communications manager, said during the company's livestream of the launch. "But again, just it's incredible to see how much further we got this time around."

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"Starship reached orbital velocity!" Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX wrote in a post on X, formerly called Twitter, shortly after the successful launch. "Congratulations SpaceX team!!"

Once the rocket was in flight, mission engineers completed a number of tests, including re-lighting its engines in space and opening its payload door, before steering the craft back to splash down in the Indian Ocean. However, during reentry, the team lost contact with Starlink — SpaceX's satellite internet service — and the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System that it uses to keep an eye on its rockets.

SpaceX intends to use future versions of Starship to transport crews, spacecraft, satellites and cargo to various 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, for the upcoming Artemis 3 and 4 missions.

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.

SpaceX doesn't appear to be too concerned about its misplaced rocket and often states that failures during early test phases are normal.

"Each of these flight tests continue to be just that: a test," SpaceX said in a statement released before the launch. "They aren't occurring in a lab or on a test stand, but are putting flight hardware in a flight environment to maximize learning."

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.