Musk Reads: SpaceX Explores Starship Mars Landing Sites

Starship landing spot draws closer; Starlink has a near-encounter; Musk and Jack Ma clash over Mars.

Starship landing spot draws closer; Starlink has a near encounter; and Musk and Jack Ma clash over Mars. It’s Musk Reads: SpaceX Edition #102.

A version of this article appeared in the “Musk Reads” newsletter. Sign up for free here.

Musk Quote of the Week

“Very exciting to see India’s rapid progress in space! There are always setbacks, of course, but I think India is doing great overall.”

Mars landing sites

SpaceX Starship

Has SpaceX moved closer to finding a landing spot for the Starship on Mars? New images uncovered show the company actively exploring six potential landing sites for the rocket, which could carry the first humans to the planet and start a gradually developing base. Images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shared through the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, suggest SpaceX is looking at five sites in the Arcadia region and one by Phlegra Montes. Paul Wooster, principal Mars development engineer for SpaceX, struck a positive tone about the Arcadia region in 2017 because it has few rocks. An ideal landing site would also offer lots of ice to support a human settlement and sit somewhere close to the equator to offer better temperature conditions. Read more.

The next steps for the Starship took shape last week. Musk claims that SpaceX is planning a flight of 20 kilometers into the air in October, using the Starship Mk 1 test vehicle. The vehicle is then expected to complete an orbital flight shortly thereafter. New documents from the Federal Aviation Administration also suggest SpaceX, at one point, wanted to complete a trip up 100 kilometers in the air, bringing the rocket to the Karman line that marks the start of outer space. These steps follow the visually spectacular 150-meter jump for the “Starhopper” in August. Read more.

In Other SpaceX News…

Starlink had a close encounter with a satellite last week, a potential sign of things to come as the several-thousand-satellite internet constellation gradually grows. The European Space Agency explained that it had to move its Aeolus wind pattern satellite out of the way of Starlink’s 44th satellite after the latter lowered to an orbit of 320 kilometers as part of a test process. The United States Air Force warned that the pair had a one in 1,000 chance of collision, but SpaceX told Inverse that “a bug in our on-call paging system” stopped the relevant team from receiving the message. The ESA had to fire Aeolus’ thrusters to temporarily avoid the satellite.

These moves are relatively routine in the space industry. The ESA completed 28 similar maneuvers last year, but the lengthy planning involved in each near-encounter means the agency wants to automate the process. Matt Desch, CEO of satellite firm Iridium, wrote on Twitter that his firm completes around one such move a week, also noting that his team “don’t put out a press release to say who we maneuvered around.” Read more.

Is it a good idea to go to Mars? Musk clashed with Jack Ma, the co-founder of the Alibaba Group and estimated to be China’s richest person, at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai recently. Musk defended the plan by stating that “I think it’s important for us to take the set of actions that are most likely to continue consciousness into the future.” Musk stated that it would cost somewhere between half a percent and one percent of global gross domestic product, which the World Bank totaled to $85.7 trillion in 2018. That places Musk’s plans at somewhere around $400 billion to $900 billion per year. Ma struck a more skeptical tone, asking whether effort should instead be spent improving the lives of people on Earth. Read more.

What’s next for SpaceX: SpaceX is expected to hold a presentation on September 28 at the Boca Chica facility in Texas, where it will explain more about next steps for the Starship. The event marks the anniversary of SpaceX’s first trip to orbit. Originally scheduled for August 24, the event was delayed as Musk explained that it would “probably make sense to do this when Starship Mk 1 has 3 Raptors, moving body fins & landing gear installed.”

Musk Reads Mailroom

Phyliss Taggart asks:

  • Any chance SpaceX will hit the stock market anytime soon?

SpaceX, unlike Tesla, is not publicly traded. The firm is one of the highest-valued “unicorns” on the market, the term given to private companies with a valuation over $1 billion. In May 2019, CNBC revealed the company had raised over $1 billion this year alone, raising its value to over $33.3 billion. A funding round in April took in $536 million at $204 per share.

This level of value edges fairly close to Tesla, which currently trades publicly at $41.6 billion. Musk famously detailed plans in August 2018 to take Tesla private at a price of $420 per share, but questions around funding sparked a scandal that ended with a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Explaining why he wanted to take Tesla private, Musk wrote in an email to employees that being a publicly traded company “puts enormous pressure on Tesla to make decisions that may be right for a given quarter, but not necessarily right for the long-term.”

Right now, SpaceX is very much focused on the long term. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, told CNBC in May 2018 that the firm “can’t go public until we’re flying regularly to Mars.” Shotwell explained that, instead of worrying about public offerings, the company is focusing on trying to “achieve the vision that Elon sets out for us.”

By that time, the company could bring in a lot more revenue than it does today. Starlink, the firm’s planned internet satellite service, is projected to bring in $20 billion in revenue by 2025, eclipsing the entire rocket launch industry that only brings in around $5 billion revenue per year for all companies involved.

With the company focused on building its most ambitious rocket to date, it seems an IPO is not in the cards for now.

Photo of the Week

The Starship heat tiles that flew on CRS-18 took a beating in this photo from Pauline Acalin.

The Elonporium

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The Ultra-Fine Print

This has been Musk Reads: SpaceX Edition #102, the weekly rundown of essential reading about futurist and entrepreneur Elon Musk. I’m Mike Brown, an innovation journalist for Inverse.

A version of this article appeared in the “Musk Reads” newsletter. Sign up for free here.

Media via Inverse