Watch live: SpaceX is about to blow up a rocket in a crucial test to show NASA that its spaceship ready to launch astronauts

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SpaceX's Crew Dragon spaceship is launching again this weekend - perhaps for its final flight before the capsule carries a crew of astronauts. 

On Saturday morning, Elon Musk's space company plans to conduct a crucial safety demonstration called an in-flight abort test. The goal: demonstrate to NASA that the spacecraft's escape mechanisms that can jet astronauts away from a rocket in case an explosion or other emergency arises during their ascent. NASA requires this demonstration before it will allow SpaceX to fly its astronauts into space.

The test is slated to begin at 8 a.m. ET on Saturday, January 18 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. You can watch the action in real time via the YouTube video player below.

A major milestone for SpaceX and NASA

The goal of the Crew Dragon spaceship is to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

NASA hasn't been able to transport astronauts on its own spaceships since July 2011, when its space shuttle completed its final flight. Since then, the agency has relied exclusively on Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from orbit in Soyuz spacecraft. To develop new American-made spacecraft, NASA launched the Commercial Crew program: a competition between private companies for billions of dollars' worth of government contracts. SpaceX and Boeing won.

On Saturday, the unmanned Crew Dragon will sit atop one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets. After 84 seconds, engineers will intentionally cut the rocket engines. By that point, it will be traveling so fast (nearly twice the speed of sound) that aerodynamic forces rip the rocket to pieces. The fuel tanks will rip open, and an explosion will ensue. 

The Crew Dragon, meanwhile, will detach and escape as the rocket explodes by firing its own engines. If all goes well, the spaceship will get far enough away to stay safe, then deploy built-in parachutes and splash down somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

"We tried to design a way to save B1046, but not possible," Elon Musk wrote on Twitter, referring to the reusable first-stage rocket booster. He added that it would be "destroyed by dragon fire."

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SpaceX's recovery ship, called GO Searcher, will be stationed nearby to retrieve it.

Crew Dragon has been in development since 2012. In March 2019, SpaceX launched it into orbit for the first time, carrying a dummy and a plush toy. Crew Dragon autonomously docked with the space station then later returned safely to Earth.

However, the following month, a Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a ground test - a different NASA safety check on its escape system. The company said the problem was due to a "leaky valve," which it called "an anomaly." 

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The weather forecast shows that Saturday should be clear and sunny. If the test needs to be postponed, there are additional windows set aside on Sunday and Monday.

If all goes smoothly on Saturday, SpaceX's first crewed launch is expected later this year, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley at the helm.

NASA and SpaceX will provide joint live coverage - watch below

 

Dave Mosher contributed reporting to this story.

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