NASA plans to use it to land astronauts on the moon, but it could be the start of new opportunities — if it flies.
April 16, 2023 at 8:00 am EDT
As early as Monday morning, SpaceX is expected to launch its own massive rocket, the nearly 400-foot-tall behemoth known as Starship, for the first time. Powered by a staggering 33 first-stage engines, it will have twice the thrust of the SLS. Unlike NASA’s SLS, whose payload falls into the ocean after launch, the stainless steel starship is designed to return to a soft landing on Earth and be reused.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued SpaceX a license to launch on Friday, and SpaceX said it was aiming for a two-and-a-half-hour window beginning at 8 a.m. Eastern Monday, with other opportunities in the following days in case of delays.
If the SLS represents a traditional government approach to rocket design — using hardware originally designed for the Space Shuttle in the 1970s — Starship represents a modern, entrepreneurial bent to space flight. Starships are designed to refuel in orbit, allowing SpaceX to carry unprecedented amounts of cargo and send dozens of people into deep space. Also, since it will be reusable, it is expected to operate at a much lower cost than SLS.
Starship and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s promise that the vehicle could “make life on Mars a reality” has attracted legions of fans. For years, they’ve jammed Musk’s presentations on the rocket, obsessively tracking its design iterations and making pilgrimages to SpaceX’s Starship facility in a remote corner of South Texas, which the company calls Starbase.
But Starship won over NASA, which has put the rocket at the center of its exploration goals. In 2021, the space agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use it as a vehicle to land astronauts on the lunar surface, giving it a key role in NASA’s campaign to return humans to the lunar surface as part of its Artemis program. .
A Starship spacecraft mounted atop a super-heavy booster — its launch was SpaceX’s first attempt to fly an entire vehicle. A successful launch would be no small feat, especially considering the rocket’s size and complexity. “Success is measured by how much we learn from an experiment like this, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances Starship development,” SpaceX said. said in a statement.
Speaking at the Morgan Stanley conference last month, Musk said The first flight has a 50 percent chance of success.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be in orbit, but I guarantee excitement,” he said. “It won’t be boring.”
If it flies successfully, the starship will be used not only as a vehicle for exploration but also for science. With the ability to carry enormous amounts of mass into orbit, astronomers and astrophysicists are rethinking what kinds of telescopes and instruments can be launched into space.
In its fully reusable configuration, Starship can lift more than 100 metric tons — more than 220,000 pounds — to the Moon and even more to low Earth orbit. SpaceX User Guide as of 2020.
In contrast, the current version of the SLS is capable of carrying 27 metric tons, or 59,500 pounds, to the moon. According to NASA. With the pending upgrade, that will increase to 38 metric tons or 83,700 pounds.
Inside the rockets that NASA and SpaceX plan to send to the moon
“Assuming it’s successful, Starship will dramatically improve our space capabilities, which will qualitatively change how we can build astrophysical missions,” he predicted. Physics essay today Written by a trio of astronomers and physicists. “…astrophysics missions to space have always been tightly constrained by the capabilities of launchers, which have not changed significantly in two decades.”
A report last year National Academies of SciencesEngineering and Medicine, “Starships can accommodate payloads significantly larger and heavier than traditional NASA planetary payloads, significantly reducing the need for costly reductions in size and weight required for traditional NASA payloads.”
“It’s very simple, really. When you design any mission for astronomy, you’re very limited by the mass available on the rocket,” Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at Harvard and the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in an interview. For example, the James Webb Space Telescope launched Ariane 5 into space. It had to be folded and designed to fit into the rocket’s nose cone Almost 14,000 poundsFar less than the starship could accommodate.
“Your whole development process, your whole design process, is very simple,” he said. “That’s a huge cost savings.”
In fact, a starship’s cargo space is so generous that it may take some time for the space industry to grow into it.
“Starships are too big for most payloads today,” said Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology. “If it’s cheap enough, it won’t matter. And it will be a direct replacement for low-capacity vehicles in the short term. The real impact will be new concepts that take advantage of the vehicle’s massive potential. It will take years to market to design and manufacture payloads that are truly optimized for starships.”
Starship already has some customers. Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, has booked a trip around the moon with several private citizens. Jared Isaacman, another billionaire who ordered an all-private-civilian flight to orbit SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft in 2021, plans to fly with people on the starship’s maiden voyage. However, it is unclear when those flights will occur.
SpaceX needs Starship to fly regularly to keep its next-generation Starlink Internet satellites in orbit. They are more capable than the current constellation of satellites, which are launched in batches by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. But the new satellites are much heavier, about 1.25 tons, Musk said, and will require more power from the starship.
But first SpaceX needs to launch successfully.
SpaceX blew up a series of shuttle prototypes during a previous test campaign, flying them about six miles up and then bringing them back down in landing attempts that ended in fiery explosions until the company finally landed.
Last year, SpaceX received preliminary approval Its first launch is required by the Federal Aviation Administration to take several steps designed to protect the environment and minimize the impact of its operations on nearby public beaches and wildlife before a launch license is issued.
The upcoming launch attempt is more ambitious than previous attempts. The Starship will be stacked on top of a 33-engine super-heavy booster, which is expected to cause the Starship to rapidly orbit most of the world and fall through the atmosphere before crashing into the ocean off the coast of Hawaii.
Musk said that if the launch fails, SpaceX will try again soon. “We’re building full-scale starships in South Texas, so I think we have an 80 percent chance of reaching orbit this year.”
For this effort, SpaceX will not attempt to land the starship or its booster. But eventually the booster hopes to fly back to its nearly 500-foot-tall launch tower, where it will be gripped by a pair of arms that act like giant chopsticks.
After completing its mission and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the starship flips horizontally, falls back toward Earth in a sort of belly-flop, then automatically, re-ignites its engines, gently touches down on the landing pad. It’s a technique the company says will allow for “journeys to places across the solar system that don’t have runways.”
Once it’s operational, Starship could “lower the cost of accessing space by orders of magnitude,” Musk said, allowing people to go to Mars and eventually reach the goal of making humanity “multiplanetary.”
“We don’t want to be one of those lame one-planet civilizations,” he said.