SpaceX's Starship Hopper Turning Elon Musk's Dreams of a Mars Rocket Into Reality

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s dream to get humans to Mars isn’t so much of a dream anymore. It’s been a little more than two years since he first announced his ambitious plans to blast astronauts to the Red Planet aboard what would be SpaceX’s largest and most powerful rocket. And the gargantuan vessel is well on its way to becoming a reality.

The launch system named Starship, formerly Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), has been said to dwarf Falcon Heavy and pave the way for Mars colonization, private space tourism, and an inter-Earth transit system.

Aside from being the catalyst of what could one day be a democratic Martian metropolis, Musk has said that it could one day take off and land anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. But before Starship attempts to write a new chapter in aerospace history it needs to complete the journey from blueprints to carbon fibre.

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How SpaceX envision a Mars colony.

Musk recently tweeted that SpaceX is developing Starship prototypes at its Boca Chica facility in Texas while the construction of the final design and rocket engines will taking place at its Hawthorne, California site. On Tuesday he revealed the rocket’s first “Hopper” test model: A major milestone as SpaceX works towards getting the booster airborne as early as 2022.

Here’s what’s left for SpaceX to complete Starship:

SpaceX Starship: It’s First Prototype Is Here and It’s Stunning

SpaceX started off 2019 by introducing the world to the model design that’s supposed to help test whether Starship’s design concept can even work in the first place. The experimental vessel, known as a “hopper,” is 30 feet of stainless steel that Musk has likened to “liquid silver.”

It’ll be subjected to multiple “hop tests,” or trial suborbital flights to determine its viability. In a December 8 tweet, Musk said that it could take off “in ~4 weeks.” This could suggest that SpaceX is aiming to fly the hopper in January. But even if it does, there’s still some design refinements that need to be done.

SpaceX's final Starship Hopper
SpaceX's final Starship Hopper

As we’ve come to expect, there is a cultural reference. Musk based the hopper’s silhouette on a science fiction-esque render that recalls a famous rock etched out in the mid-century comic The Adventures of Tintin. The hopper might be true to size, but Starship’s final design won’t be as smooth and it’ll have a pointier tip.

SpaceX will likely make tweaks to the model after its goes airborne for the first time. But this is the first glimpse of the first 30-feet of what is supposed to eventually be a 387-foot launch system.

SpaceX Starship: Why The Name Change?

After years of calling it the BFR, Musk renamed the mother of all rockets in a November tweet. 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. This is what the hopper is meant to model. It’ll maneuver through the solar system to accommodate astronauts and cargo.

The remaining 357 feet will be the first stage, now named “Super Heavy.” This massive rocket engine will be responsible for getting Starship and its passengers past the atmosphere.

Super Heavy will be made up of 31 Raptor, liquid oxygen, and methane guzzling 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.

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The Starship second stage detaching from the Super Heavy first stage.
The BFR in its entirety.
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The Starship blueprint.
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spacex bfr

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 the ambitious timeline to have Starship take off in under 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.

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The path that Starship will take when during its first crewed mission.

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 that’s 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 is supposed to 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 to develop 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 to prevent 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 because it did not follow the traditional standards of NASA cleanliness.

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A computer-generated image of Starship docked at a Martian space port.

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

Musk has other plans for Starship besides 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 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. That’s 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.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns an aerospace company of his own called Blue Origin. The firm is primarily focused on reaching the moon, but it has recently set its sites on Mars as well.

Blue origin test escape
A Blue Origin test escape.

Mars One, a Dutch space tourism company wants to get people on Mars by 2031. But reporting by Inverse suggests these plans are far-fetched at best.

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, or even come close, to achieving some of these lofty goals.