SpaceX is constructing what will be the biggest rocket in its arsenal, Starship. Formerly known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), this vessel will dwarf the Falcon Heavy and potentially clear the path for private space tourism, Mars travel, and an inter-Earth transport system.
Elon Musk has talked a big game about Starship. He’s tweeted that it’ll take people anywhere on Earth in less than an hour and allow humans to establish a Martian colony. In short, it’s supposed to flip the aerospace game on its head but it’s still got a long way to go before that comes true.
Currently, Starship is being assembled in a shipyard near the southwestern part of Los Angeles’ Terminal Island, which SpaceX leased as manufacturing ground for the rocket in March. But Musk has recently stated he is “accelerating” to try and meet get the booster airborne as early as 2022.
Here’s everything we know about SpaceX’s most ambitious undertaking to date:
SpaceX Starship: Why The Name Change?
After years of calling it the BFR, Musk recently tweeted that he was renaming the mother of all SpaceX rockets to Starship. He explained that this change was meant to create a distinction between the launch system’s second and first stage sections.
The second stage — that space-shuttle looking vessel that makes up the top half of the whole vehicle — refers to Starship. The first stage, now named “Super Heavy,” will be responsible for getting Starship past the atmosphere.
Super Heavy will be made up for 31 Raptor engines. These boosters will be capable of about twice as much thrust as the Merlin 1D engines that power the Falcon 9. This would allow the rocket to lift “100 metric tons” from Earth to the surface of Mars, according to Musk.
Once Super Heavy gets Starship past the atmosphere, the two stages will detach to reveal the second stage’s 7 Raptor engines. These will enable it to continue to explore far-off reaches of the solar system, starting with Mars.
SpaceX Starship: 2022 Uncrewed Maiden Voyage
Musk has put Starship development on overdrive. On November 17 he tweeted that SpaceX would hold off on Falcon 9 upgrades to focus on developing its gargantuan rocket.
At the 2017 International Astronautical Federation (IAF) conference, Musk stated that he’s aiming to conduct two uncrewed missions to Mars by 2022. This acceleration in development could be an effort to try and meet this ambitious timeline and have Starship take off in four years.
SpaceX Starship: 2023 Crewed Moon Mission
Starship’s very first crewed mission will be a trip around the moon and back, and will happen as early as 2023, according to an announcement made during a September 17 press event. It will carry Yusaku Maezawa, a 42-year-old Japanese billionaire entrepreneur, who secured his spot as SpaceX’s first private space tourist for an undisclosed amount of money.
The trip will last an estimated four to five days and Maezawa will invite “six to eight” artists from around the world to join him on his lunar journey. There will also likely be astronauts present, to ensure the safety of all of these space cadets.
Maezawa has yet to pick who he’ll be hitching a ride to the moon with, but there will be a catch. The people selected will need to create a work of art upon their return inspired by the excursion.
“These artists will be asked to create something when they return to Earth,” he explained. “These masterpieces will inspire the dreamer inside all of us. Needless to say, we’ve always been inspired by the Moon. Take for example, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and The Beatles’ Mr. Moonlight.”
SpaceX Starship: 2024 Crewed Mars Mission
The following year will be massive for Starship. During the IAF event, Musk stated that SpaceX plans on conducting four additional Mars missions that year, two crewed and two uncrewed.
This could be the stepping stone for what could be a permanent Martian settlement. Paul Wooster, the principal Mars development engineer for SpaceX, said that the company even has plans for sprawling cities.
“The idea would be to expand out, start off not just with an outpost, but grow into a larger base, not just like there are in Antarctica, but really a village, a town, growing into a city and then multiple cities on Mars,” he said.
SpaceX Starship: Is This Even Possible?
Musk published a paper in the journal New Space on June 2017 detailing his Mars colonization strategy. He envisioned the creation of a “self-sustaining city” on the Red Planet, though his vision has its share of doubters. University College London physics professor Andrew Coates, in particular, claimed to find three major issues with Musk’s plan.
First off, he brings up the fact that Musk’s plan has little regard for NASA’s “planetary protection” rules. These guidelines were put into place to keep earthly germs from contaminating other parts of the solar system and from potential, alien lifeforms from making it back to Earth. SpaceX’s uncrewed Falcon Heavy launch in February has already been dubbed a biothreat to the solar system.
Secondly, Coates writes that Musk glosses over the issue that it can get as cold as -184 degrees Fahrenheit (-120 degrees Celsius) on the Martian surface. Musk acknowledges that it gets “a little cold,” which he intends on fixing by “compressing the atmosphere” to grow plants. But the tech mogul offers little clarification as to how he plans on doing that.
Finally, Coates argues that Musk doesn’t take radiation hazard into account. Earth is protected by a magnetic field that swats away radiation from cosmic rays and solar flares. Without it, humans would surely have been burned to a crisp by now. Research to develop radiation shielding for space travel is in the works, but Musk hasn’t placed a huge emphasis on how to overcome these concerns in his plans thus far.
In short, while big rockets will help humans get to Mars, we’ll need a whole new batch of emerging tech in order to make it anything close to livable.
SpaceX Starship: Inter-Earth Transit Sytem
But Musk has other plans for Starship other than just space travel. He’s also touted that the craft could be used to transport people or cargo around the world in less than an hour.
The CEO stated that Starship could get from New York to Tokyo in 25 minutes flat during a his presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. He also mentioned that these future, Earthly rocket ports could be connected to the hyperloop to revolutionize global travel.
Rocket-based travel won’t come cheap, at least at first, even flights that remain within the atmosphere. Sam Dinkin, a writer for The Space Review estimates it would cost $1,200 per person.
SpaceX Starship: Specifications
When Musk announced Maezawa would be Starship’s first private customer, he also refreshed the spacecraft’s design. It is now expected to be 387 feet tall (118 meters), SpaceX’s largest rocket of all time, 157 feet taller than the Falcon Heavy and twice as powerful.
SpaceX Starship: How It’ll Work
The ultimate goal will be to enable it to carry this amount of weight anywhere in the solar system with the help of “propellant depots” that will be established in deep space. This way Starship can take refueling breaks mid-flight.
If that’s not science fiction enough for you, Musk has also revealed how Starship will land and it’s absolutely bonkers. SpaceX’s specifications state that over 99 percent of [its] energy [will be] removed aerodynamically and a supersonic landing burn will slow it to a halt.
“The way it operates is more like a skydiver than an aircraft. The whole time it is entering, it is just trying to brake. It is just trying to stop,” he explained “This will look really epic in person, guaranteed to be exciting.”
SpaceX Starship: Who’s The Competition?
SpaceX is far from the only entity trying to establish a human settlement on Mars.
Finally, the United Arab Emirates has also shown interest in building a Martian city within the next 100 years. This settlement has been envisioned to be roughly the size of Chicago, comprised of about 600,000 people.
As it stands, SpaceX has the most ambitious Mars timeline. Space exploration fans around the world will be waiting at the edge of their seat to see if Musk can meet his timeline.