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SpaceX’s Starship rocket reached space for the first time on Friday though both the ship and its main booster were lost minutes into the flight, dealing another setback to Elon Musk’s ambition of carrying humans to Mars.
The 400ft-tall rocket — the most powerful ever launched — left its launch pad alongside the Gulf of Mexico in Texas just after 7am local time and rose above a height of 100km, the point at which space begins, before the mishaps that affected its first failed launch in April recurred.
After nearly three minutes of flight the spacecraft successfully separated from its first stage, a step further than SpaceX managed in the first test. However the first part of the rocket, known as a super heavy booster, spun out of control and failed to return to the ground as planned.
SpaceX eventually hopes to reuse both stages of the rocket to bring down the cost of flight, though it had only planned to land the booster during Saturday’s test.
The engines on the rocket’s second stage, bearing the spaceship that Nasa hopes to use to carry astronauts to the Moon later this decade, fired successfully and nearly completed their scheduled six-minute burn before SpaceX reported that it had lost contact with the craft.
The rocket’s first launch in April ended in a fireball after several of its 33 engines malfunctioned and its upper stage failed to separate from the main booster. The intense blast from its engines also severely damaged the launch pad, throwing up large chunks of concrete and sending a cloud of dust across the surrounding landscape.
SpaceX made a number of changes after that failure, including building a water-cooled steel launch pad to be able to withstand the lift-off. The most important design change was moving to a system of “hot firing” in which the second stage of the rocket fires its engines before separation from the first, providing extra power.
The Federal Aviation Administration gave its go-ahead on Wednesday to a second launch attempt, setting the stage for a blast-off as early as Friday. SpaceX put the launch back by a day to replace a part.