SpaceX’s new Starship builds hopes for Mars missions

Image credit: Getty Images, via BBC

Recently, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, laid out his plans for the company’s new Starship and Super Heavy booster projects to reach orbit within the next six months. Their current aim is to get the rocket and booster to orbit the Earth as well as complete missions to the Moon and Mars. In the longer term, he has his sights set on using the Starship and Super Heavy booster to potentially colonise other planets in our solar system. 

The Starship test program is planned to last two to three years, beginning with fuel, static fire and low altitude tests. The final test will be for the Starship to fly 100km, conduct a flip manoeuvre at the edge of space before coming back for re-entry and landing. The first test of the Super Heavy booster is set to go ahead as early as next year, carrying the Mk3 Starship prototype into orbit. Further plans are in place for unmanned missions to Mars by 2022 and a crewed flight in 2024. Unsurprisingly, SpaceX already has billionaires lining up to secure one of a hundred places on the flight around the Moon set to take off in 2023.

So far, the Mk1 Starship has been built at the Boca Chica launch site in Texas and is ready for high altitude tests in the next month. These tests will shoot the rocket to 65,000 feet (around 20 km) and have it land at a site near to where it took off from, with the rocket structure, performance of the engines and rocket control during take-off and landing being examined. These tests should hopefully show off the Starship system to attract potential buyers for the 2021 satellite missions.

The prototype itself is made of a nickel chromium alloy called 301, stands at 164 feet tall and is designed to be reusable. The stainless steel alloy is much cheaper and lighter than carbon fibre, and melts at higher temperatures, which is a good property for reusability, as well as allowing the heat shield to be lighter. 

Whilst the final version will have six Raptor engines, three for burning at sea level and three for in-space manoeuvres, both the Mk1 and Mk2 prototypes only have three Raptor engines each. These burn a mix of methane and liquid oxygen, and these propellants will be chilled to near freezing points to increase the efficiency, thrust and propellant density. 

The Super Heavy booster will have an additional 35 Raptor engines all firing in unison. The booster will be used to launch the Starship into space and has the ability to return to Earth for a vertical landing. By using this system, the Starship will be able to deliver satellites into orbit at a lower cost than current Falcon rockets. If everything runs on schedule, the Starship and Super Heavy booster may replace the Falcon rockets within the next few years.

Another key feature of the Starship rocket is that the operational rockets will have six fins to help keep control during re-entry and better perform manoeuvres. Currently the Mk1 prototype only has two or three to help steer and balance its heavy base. For future interplanetary missions, the increased number will be useful in being able to control the rocket’s landing on other planets, as well as guiding it in long distance missions in space.

An interesting feature that could be included in later versions is the capability of refuelling in space which would allow for longer duration missions. This would lead to several advances in space travel and potentially make manned missions to Mars more achievable than they currently are. It could also have the potential to aid missions that explore more of our own solar system, which could lead to many more scientific discoveries and developments.

Image credit: SpaceX via BBC

Even with all the excitement over the Starship and Super Heavy booster, SpaceX will keep flying its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which have been said to be the best suited rockets for NASA’s own ambitious Artemis Moon program. This program aims to send the first woman to explore the Moon by 2024. Although there is the potential for delay, if all goes to plan, it could be the Starship rocket that will be landing the next generation of astronauts on the Moon instead of the Falcon.

SpaceX also has ongoing commitments with NASA to provide a Dragon capsule system that it still has to think about. Jim Bridenstine, the Administrator of NASA, has commented in light of the announcements for the Starship and Super Heavy booster, that, ‘NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm’ on the Dragon capsule commitments. The project is several years behind schedule due to testing failures and design alterations. SpaceX has replied, however, that the Starship and Super Heavy booster projects are drawing less than five percent of its resources, which seems impressive given the pace that they plan to keep up over the next couple of years.

It seems likely that with all the updates SpaceX has for the Starship and Super Heavy rocket booster, their goal of interplanetary space travel is that much closer to becoming a reality. With their schedule running fairly smoothly despite all that is currently happening in the world, it is clear they still believe that the problems on our planet are not a reason to stop looking outwards. With the Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster, SpaceX is bringing its passion for space exploration’s role in our future to the world.

This article was written by Jessie Hammond and edited by Hollie Marks.

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