SpaceX founder Elon Musk teased Monday morning that his presentation Friday on the “Interplanetary Transport System” (ITS) before the International Astronautical Congress will reveal some “unexpected applications” for the potentially planet-hopping rockets. What could Musk have in store for the world later this week?
The tweet is cagey, even by Musk’s standards — it doesn’t even confirm those “applications” are for the ITS — though since Musk has already said that will be the topic of his speech Friday in Adelaide, Australia, that’s a safe enough assumption.
Musk revealed in 2016 that the Mars Colonial Transporter was now an Interplanetary Transport System — meaning it could take future explorers beyond Mars and into the outer solar system — so it’s intriguing to wonder just what new applications could qualify as unexpected compared with a trip to Jupiter or Saturn. Of course, “unexpected” doesn’t necessarily have to mean even bigger in scale, and we’re not exactly counting on Musk to announce Friday that he’s ready to start pushing for interstellar flight.
More likely, these applications will be ways SpaceX can put its rocket systems to use and start bringing in extra money, which Musk has said is seriously needed for any future Mars expeditions. So let’s look a bit closer to home and consider some potential targets SpaceX could have for these mysterious new applications, using Musk’s past statements as a guide.
A Rocket Delivery Service
Musk offhandedly mused about this possibility at the 2016 IAC in Guadalajara, Mexico, as a way to bring in revenue for SpaceX. The idea, which very much sounded like off-the-cuff musing, would involve launching rockets in one city and having them land in another, allowing for ultra-fast transportation of cargo.
“Maybe there is some market for really fast transport of stuff around the world, provided we can land somewhere where noise is not a super big deal,” he said last year. “Rockets are very noisy. We can transport cargo to anywhere on earth in 45 minutes at the longest. Most places on Earth we can get to in maybe 20 to 25 minutes.”
He further suggested a floating platform could be built 20 to 30 miles off the coast of New York, from which rockets could reach Europe in 10 minutes and Japan in 25. It’s a seriously cool idea, but unless Musk really got excited about the idea after he threw it out there in 2016, it seems unlikely he’s ready to roll this out as a formal plan, even one that is years away from happening.
Starlink Satellites and Space Internet
This, on the other hand, is close enough to fruition that SpaceX registered trademarks for it last week. Musk has previously talked about launching a fleet of around 4,000 satellites in 2019 to provide internet connections for those who don’t currently have access. SpaceX’s own financial documents suggest the eventual success of this business is crucial to the company having the revenue needed to keep funding its Mars dreams.
That isn’t new or especially unexpected, but SpaceX did file trademarks last week for Starlink, the name of its satellite system. In listing what the satellites can do, some features are expected, like wireless broadband and telecommunications connections.
More interesting is a later portion of the filing, which mentions “scientific and technological services, namely, research, analysis, and monitoring of data captured via remote sensors and satellites; remote sensing services, namely, aerial surveying through the use of satellites.” What all that basically means is using the satellites not only as a communications hub but also as observation satellites, meaning SpaceX could gather such data independent of NASA. How that might tie in with the ITS is uncertain — it could just be a near-term revenue stream, or this could be a piece in a larger, more long-term plan.
Smaller Spacecraft, Low Earth Orbit, and the Moon
This is probably the most likely candidate for what Musk is talking about. He intimated in July that SpaceX would be making the size of the Mars rockets smaller, allowing the entire system to become more versatile. The theory here is that this would let the Mars craft also function effectively in low Earth orbit, where pretty much the entire space-based economy is located. It could also set SpaceX up for more involvement in lunar exploration.
SpaceX announced in February that two unnamed individuals have paid for a tourist flight around the moon in 2018. There’s not any further word on that since then, but Musk has since discussed the possibility of a moon base at the 2017 ISS R&D Conference in July.
“Having some permanent presence on another heavenly body, which would be the moon base, and then getting people to Mars and beyond — I think that’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo that people are looking for,” Musk said, suggesting this ought to be NASA’s focus. But could it be SpaceX’s as well, even if Musk has said going to the moon doesn’t help the company build the architecture it needs to go to Mars?
If there’s any reason to think Musk’s announcement Friday will be about something else, it’s that he has already sort of announced his plans to expand SpaceX’s long-term work closer to Earth. But it’s definitely possible he will have more concrete details about how the ITS and its components will work on our home turf.
Musk has been largely uninterested in asteroid mining, leaving that possibility to other space entrepreneurs. In a 2016 interview at the Royal Aeronautical Society, Musk said he saw only limited value in such schemes: “I think there’s potentially some market for mining asteroids as kind of a refueling station on the way to Mars and other places. I’m not convinced there’s a case for taking something, say, platinum, that is found in an asteroid and bringing it back to Earth.”
Still, if other companies like Planetary Resources want to go asteroid mining and aren’t planning on building their own rockets, SpaceX would be a natural carrier for such ventures. Planetary Resources is years away from trying it — and their 2016 announcement that a Falcon 9 rocket would be carrying one of their space telescopes into orbit has yet to come to fruition — but perhaps Musk has seen something in the past year to get him more excited about asteroids as a destination.
Planets Beyond Mars
Musk has talked about building fueling depots on moons of Jupiter and Saturn to allow exploration into the outer solar system, with even demoted Pluto mentioned as a potential interplanetary gas station. It’s hard to see what more he could have to say about SpaceX traveling to planets other than Mars, especially when he’s taken a fairly dim view of our other neighbors: Mercury is “way too close to the sun,” while Venus is “a hot acid bath.” But could Musk be gearing up to make exploring the entire solar system a serious priority for SpaceX’s research and development?
This is easily the most hypothetical, and it’s the least likely — honestly, it’s hard to even see how looking beyond Mars to other planets would even really count as “applications” if SpaceX wouldn’t plan on doing anything new beyond going to visit them. Still, Musk has never been shy about dreaming big with his IAC announcements, so something truly wild and spectacular shouldn’t be ruled out.