SpaceX’s Starship program, which boasts the world’s tallest and most powerful rocket, aims to land people and cargo on Mars in the future. The most recent prototype, SN20, is awaiting launch into orbit. Many other prototypes have flown, been ground tested, and sometimes even made testing mistakes in an effort to improve future flights.
Elon Musk is developing a vehicle that might transform space travel. The Starship, as it will be known, will be a fully reusable transport system capable of carrying up to 100 people to Mars.
Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company SpaceX was founded with the goal of making life multi-planetary. He claims that settling humans on other worlds such as Mars could save civilization in the event of a cataclysm on Earth, such as a large asteroid impact.
Elon Musk, the billionaire, founded SpaceX in 2002 after selling two previous businesses: software-service internet company Zip2 and online payment provider PayPal. His long-term goal was to establish a Mars settlement company. However, SpaceX has been very busy in other areas of space: the company has built Dragon cargo ships and Crew Dragon astronaut spaceships for the International Space Station, as well as launched satellites for a variety of customers using the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The SpaceX founder has frequently expressed his desire to build cities on Mars. He believes that settlements will require a large number of people into becoming self-sustaining.
Realizing this dream necessitates the use of a capable vehicle. The Starship is a rocket and spacecraft combination that can transport more than 100 people to Mars at once.
The system is intended to be completely and quickly reusable. Being fully reusable means that the main hardware elements are not discarded in the sea or allowed to burn up, as some other launch systems do, but instead return to the ground and can be flown again.
Rapid reusability means that after returning from space, Starship can be re-fueled and ready to launch again in a short period of time, much like an aircraft. This lowers the overall cost of the business.
The Starship spacecraft will be launched atop the Super Heavy rocket.
The combined system, known as Starship, will stand 120m (394ft) tall.
Let’s start with the spacecraft. The stainless-steel vehicle, with its nosecone and landing fins, is reminiscent of rocket ships from the golden age of science fiction.
Six highly efficient Raptor engines, developed over a decade by SpaceX, are located at the back of the 50m (160ft)-long craft. The combustion occurs in stages, and the engine’s design reduces the amount of propellant wasted.
The propellant tanks are located near the center of the vehicle. These provide the Raptors with liquid methane (CH4) and liquid oxygen (O2).
The fuel is methane, and oxygen acts as an oxidizer – a chemical that causes the fuel to burn. The combination is known as methalox.
The fuel is unusual for rocket engines, but methane can produce a lot of thrusts. It’s also a wise choice in light of Musk’s Mars plans. The SpaceX founder claims that using a chemical process known as the Sabatier reaction, CH4 could be synthesized from Martian subsurface water and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).
Refueling the Starship with Martian resources for the return trip to Earth would confer a level of self-sufficiency, making journeys more feasible and cost-effective.
A large payload compartment near the front of the spacecraft, known as the upper stage, will be capable of transporting large cargo or people to destinations in deep space.
Raptor engines, which run on methane, power the starship.
Let’s move on to the rocket. Super Heavy will be 70m (230ft) long and filled with 3,400 tonnes of cryogenic (chilled) methalox.
It will be powered by approximately 32 Raptor engines (this specification has changed several times) and will have a maximum thrust of more than 70 Mega-newtons. It should be capable of delivering at least 100 tonnes of payload to low-Earth orbit, and possibly up to 150 tonnes.
The massive Saturn V launcher that was employed for the Apollo Moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s will be outclassed by Super Heavy in terms of power.
Initially, Musk intended to build Starship out of carbon fiber, but in January 2019, he announced that the craft would be made of stainless steel instead, according to Space.com. While stainless steel is heavier than carbon fiber, increasing the amount of fuel required for launch and the associated cost, Musk claims stainless steel has better thermal properties for spaceflight, lowering the cost in the long run. Musk later stated that changing the design was the best decision he ever made for the project.
Since 2019, Starship has undergone a few more design changes. Musk chose six Raptor engines over seven for the Starship vehicle. He also changed the number of Raptors on the Super Heavy, initially reducing it from 35 to 31 and then increasing it to 37 Raptors.
What purpose will Starship serve?
The starship is important in Nasa’s Artemis program, which aims to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon. The US space agency awarded SpaceX a $2.89 billion contract in April 2021 to develop Starship into a lander capable of delivering astronauts to the lunar surface this decade.
For the first time since 1972, a spaceship will land humans on the Moon.
The version designed for Artemis flights would lack the heat shield and flaps required for a return trip to Earth. Instead, the Starship Human Landing System would stay in space after its initial launch from Earth, allowing it to be used for multiple trips between lunar orbit and the Moon’s surface in the future.
The uncrewed, or cargo, version of Starship has a payload bay that opens like a crocodile’s mouth. This would allow it to be used for satellite launches. According to SpaceX, the massive payload capacity opens the door to new types of robotic science missions, such as telescopes larger than the James Webb observatory.
Musk is planning to install around 40 cabins in the payload area near the front of the upper stage for long-haul trips to Mars and back, which could take up to nine months each way.
“Five or six people could fit in each cabin if you really wanted to cram people in. But I believe we can expect two or three people per cabin, for a total of about 100 people per flight to Mars “Musk stated.
The payload bay would also include common areas, storage space, a galley, and a shelter where people could gather to protect themselves from solar storms, which occur when the Sun spews harmful charged particles into space.
The system could also be used for space tourism: Elon Musk has promised Japanese online retailer Yusaku Maezawa a trip around the Moon in 2023. It could also travel at high speeds between different locations on Earth.
Musk claims that Starship will one-day transport people to destinations in the “greater Solar System,” including gas giants like Jupiter. However, this is a long-term goal.
Refueling and Launch
The combined Starship system will begin to pitch over toward the intended orbit as it ascends from the launch pad.
When the upper stage separates in space, Super Heavy flips over and returns to Earth.
Super Heavy will deploy steel structures called “grid fins” from the sides of the booster as it descends, resembling potato waffles. These will assist in steering the rocket stage back to its launch pad so that it can be flown again.
The ambitious plan by SpaceX is to catch the falling booster using its launch tower.
This tower gives engineers and crew members access to the spacecraft and rocket while they are on the launch pad.
The launch tower will be equipped with two steel arms. The grid fins will bear the weight as the spent booster lands on these arms. Because of its resemblance to a creature from the Godzilla films, the tower has been dubbed “Mechazilla.”
In the meantime, after separation, the Starship upper stage could be placed in a “parking orbit,” allowing it to be re-fueled.
To refuel, the spacecraft would dock, or mate, with another Starship that is already orbiting the Earth and serves solely as a propellant station.
The upper stage’s landing technique.
Engineers have used parachutes or designed the vehicle so that it can land on a runway to return other spacecraft to Earth.
The upper stage of the Starship, on the other hand, takes a different approach. When the ship is ready to land on Earth, it re-enters the atmosphere at a 60-degree angle before “belly-flopping” to the ground in a horizontal position.
The vehicle’s descent is slowed entirely by the atmosphere in this mode of return. The disadvantage is that Starship is inherently unstable in this configuration.
The starship “belly flops” back to Earth before firing its engines and flipping it vertically.
To control its descent, the vehicle employs four steel landing flaps located near the front and rear of the vehicle. This is similar to how a skydiver uses their arms and legs to control their free fall.
“It’s unlike anything else… we’re doing a controlled fall,” Elon Musk says.
“You’re attempting to generate drag rather than lift – it’s the polar opposite of an aircraft.”
As Starship approaches the ground, it should be slow enough to perform an engine burn that turns the vehicle vertically. The Raptors are then used as retro-rockets to guide the vehicle down to a safe landing on its landing legs.
Musk claims that this general approach could be used to safely land Starship on any planetary surface in the Solar System.
However, in the future, starships returning to Earth – and possibly other destinations – may not have to perform the flip maneuver. The ships, like the Super Heavy booster, could be captured as they approach the ground by the launch tower’s steel arms.
Musk stated on Twitter: “Mechazilla will also capture the ship. There are no landing legs, as with the booster. These are only required for the Moon and Mars until local infrastructure is established.”
Crashes and Busts?
In February and March 2021, the Starship program launched three more prototypes for the high-altitude flight: SN9, SN10, and SN11. The vehicles flew for about 6 minutes each, but during landing, all three experienced technical issues that resulted in fiery crashes or after-touchdown explosions.
After each flight, Musk tweeted about what went wrong and what changes he planned to make to Starship prototypes to improve the program for the next attempt. After the SN11 touchdown explosion, Musk tweeted, “Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but in theory, it wasn’t needed.”
Although SpaceX has yet to launch Starship into orbit, the company is selling rides on the future mega-rocket. Dennis and Akiko Tito have been named as the first passengers for SpaceX’s second commercial spaceflight around the Moon. The pair, along with ten others, will fly aboard the company’s Starship on a cislunar space trajectory.
Dennis Tito, the first commercial astronaut to visit the International Space Station, made headlines in 2001, but the American engineer and entrepreneur are clearly looking for another thrill. According to SpaceX, his wife will be “among the first women to fly around the Moon on a Starship.” During their thrilling one-week journey around the Moon, passengers aboard Starship will come within 124 miles (200 kilometers) of the lunar surface.
When will it take off?
SpaceX has tested various upper-stage prototypes at its Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, over the last few years.
The company began in 2019 with a 39m-tall “test article” called Starhopper, which resembled a water tower and flew to 150m above ground.
The SN15 debuted with upgrades to its structures, avionics, software, and engines.
Starship serial number (SN8), the first prototype with a nosecone and flaps, flew to an altitude of 12.5km in December 2020. It belly-flopped back to Earth, providing SpaceX with valuable engineering data about the vehicle’s final phase of return from space.
However, SN8 approached the landing pad too quickly and forcefully, causing it to crumple and explode. Three more test articles exploded before Starship SN15 successfully landed in May 2021.
SpaceX intends to launch Starship on Super Heavy in 2022 for its first orbital test flight.