SpaceX may be about to unveil a NASA-branded prototype of its Starship rocket, a new photo suggests.
The image, shared by photographer Austin Barnard via his Twitter account Thursday, shows a white Starship nosecone emblazoned with the United States' flag and NASA's recently-revived "worm" logo. Barnard shared the image with the text "NASA Artemis Moon lander anyone?"
It's uncertain what SpaceX plans to do with the nosecone, but Artemis could offer hints. The project covers a wealth of lunar missions, including a crewed mission in 2024 that's expected to send the next man and first woman to the surface. NASA asked SpaceX, along with two other firms, to develop a lander for the mission. SpaceX's proposed plan makes heavy use of the Starship.
"My best guess is this will be a mock up lunar variant for the Starship presentation," Barnard wrote on Twitter, referencing the event expected to take place later this month. CEO Elon Musk has hinted that the event could show a more refined design for the Starship.
SpaceX has big plans for the Starship. The ship is designed to transport up to 100 people or 150 tons to space at a time, powered by a Raptor engine that uses liquid oxygen and methane as its fuel. Prototype versions have reached 500 feet in the air, and SpaceX now plans to reach 50,000 feet with its recent model. The company aims to host a crewed mission to Mars in the 2020s, with a goal of a city on the planet by 2050.
In April, NASA announced it had chosen three companies to develop human landers for Artemis: Jeff Bezos' firm Blue Origin, space technology firm Dynetics, and SpaceX. These fixed-price, milestone-based contracts are worth $967 million in total.
The goal is to develop and demonstrate a human landing system so that one of them can support the crewed mission in 2024. This work will build toward a more sustainable system by 2026. Following the April announcement, NASA started working with the teams in a 10-month base period ending February 2021, where they will continue developing their concepts with added NASA expertise. The agency is expected to choose up to two designs in early 2021 for the 2024 crewed mission.
Beyond crewed missions, Artemis will cover a wide range of Moon-focused projects. It will also cover a small spaceship orbiting the Moon called Gateway, which will help support missions to the surface. The project also covers the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, both of which are designed to carry crew to space. NASA has also chosen SpaceX to deliver supplies to the Gateway, using its larger Dragon XL capsule.
SpaceX proposed using multiple Starships for lunar missions. One would sit in low-Earth orbit as a propellant storage ship, supplied by tanker Starships. Another Starship designed for humans would fly to the propellant storage, refuel and continue to the Moon.
The ship itself would offer "a spacious cabin," alongside two airlocks so astronauts can explore the surface. The concept render shows a lift to the surface. The Starship would use the Super Heavy booster to leave the Earth, while Starships in space could be used to transport crew between the moon's surface and the Orion spacecraft and Gateway spaceship.
Unlike the renders supplied in the April announcement, the new nosecone uses a more recent NASA logo. NASA's more minimalist "worm" logo was introduced in 1975, only to be retired in 1992 in favor of the more complex original "meatball" design. In April 2020, NASA announced it was reviving the logo. The first rocket to use the logo in the modern era was the SpaceX Falcon 9 that sent up the first crewed Crew Dragon mission in May.
The Inverse analysis – It seems SpaceX may indeed be preparing a lunar Starship concept, perhaps for its presentation this month. The event would highlight SpaceX's progress on its contract for NASA's Artemis project.
It would make a welcome change from last year's Starship event. Hours before the unveiling of the first full-size prototype, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine pointedly tweeted that SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule was "years behind schedule." Bridenstine clarified a month later, during a joint press conference with Musk, that NASA does want to see Starship become a success. With Crew Dragon launched and Starship playing its part in Artemis, this year's event will likely see a warmer reception.
THE STARSHIP’S JOURNEY, SUMMARIZED
- November 2018 – BFR, first announced in September 2017, gets renamed to Starship.
- December 2018 – Musk confirms the new ship has switched to stainless steel.
- January 2019 – Shortened “Starhopper” prototype unveiled and Musk explains the switch to steel.
- February 2019 – Raptor engine beats a long-standing rocket record.
- April 2019 – Starhopper completes a tethered “hop.”
- July 2019 – Starhopper launches 20 meters (67 feet).
- August 2019 – Starhopper launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- September 2019 – Starship Mk.1 full-size prototype unveiled.
- May 2020 – Starship SN4 full-size prototype completes a static test fire.
- August 2020 – Starship SN5 launches 150 meters (500 feet).
- October 2020 – Starship SN8 completes the first triple-Raptor static fire.