Starship is about to fuel SpaceX’s most ambitious goals.
On Wednesday, CEO Elon Musk outlined how the company’s under-development rocket will deliver a “high fly rate” of a dozen launches in 2022. This will enable the ship to deliver actual payloads in 2023 before moving on to more ambitious goals like sending humans to the Moon and Mars.
The comments, made at the joint meeting of the Space Studies Board and the Board on Physics and Astronomy, outline how the stainless steel rocket taking shape in Texas will move from prototype curiosity to working ship.
It’s a project that could enable some of SpaceX’s most significant goals. First outlined in 2017 under the name “BFR,” the Starship is a stainless steel rocket that measures around 400 feet tall when paired with its Super Heavy booster. It’s fully reusable, designed to fly up to three times per day. It’s capable of sending up to 150 tons or 100 people into space at a time.
Its use of liquid oxygen and methane as rocket fuel means astronauts can fly to Mars, refuel using the planet’s resources, and either return to Earth or venture out further as part of a planet-hopping network.
“Ultimately, Starship is designed to be a generalized transport mechanism for the greater solar system,” Musk said at the event.
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Here is how the coming year will enable these goals:
SpaceX Starship 2022: Orbital flights and more
Musk says that the Starship’s highly-anticipated orbital flight could take place as early as January 2022.
The company built its first full-size prototype of the Starship back in September 2019. In May 2021, it successfully launched and landed a full-size prototype, SN15, to a height of around 33,000 feet.
The next phase is the orbital flight, which will send the ship and booster on a 90-minute trip. It will take off from the Texas facility, disconnect from the booster around two minutes after liftoff, and end its flight around 60 miles northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
During the event, Musk claimed the launch pad and tower would be complete later in November. SpaceX will then complete a series of tests in December, before moving on to an orbital flight the next month.
From there, Musk plans to host around a dozen test flights in 2022.
SpaceX Starship: What comes after 2022
From here, Musk has big plans for the future.
Payloads — Assuming the 2022 test flights are a success, Musk plans to move onto real payloads by 2023.
It is unclear whether this means SpaceX still plans to launch Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a trip around the Moon in 2023. That mission, which will also include eight lucky competition winners, was originally detailed in 2018.
Humans on the Moon — The Starship is also expected to land humans on the Moon, as part of the NASA Artemis project. The agency’s administrator, Bill Nelson, indicated earlier this month that the mission would likely occur no earlier than 2025.
These capabilities would be used to eventually build a lunar base.
“[Starship] has the ability, because of the mass transport capabilities of transporting enough mass and people to the Moon, to actually have a permanently occupied base on the Moon,” Musk said. “Much as we have a permanently occupied base at Antarctica.”
Humans on Mars — SpaceX also plans to send humans to Mars. When is unclear: at the 2017 unveiling of BFR, Musk outlined an ambitious timeline of sending two uncrewed ships in 2022 and two more uncrewed ships alongside two crewed vessels in 2024.
At the most recent event, he suggested that SpaceX would send at least two or three uncrewed Starships to demonstrate that the ship could land safely on the planet.
“We might be working with NASA, or maybe NASA and other countries, to send people to Mars,” he said.
This all paves the way for Musk’s long-term goal: to build a million-strong city on Mars by 2050.
Beyond Mars — Musk explained that the ship could enable a planet-hopping network, as the ship could refuel at propellant depots on the Moon or Mars and continue on their journey.
“If we have a base on Mars with a high delta-v, you could really ... you can basically planet hop,” he said. “From Mars to maybe Ceres to maybe one of the moons of Jupiter and ultimately all the way to the outer solar system.”
Musk even hinted at the idea of sending a 100-ton object to the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.
“Architecturally, it is capable of transporting almost any arbitrary mass to any solid surface in the solar system,” he said.
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 — SN5 launches 150 meters (500 feet)
- October 2020 — SN8 completes the first triple-Raptor static fire
- December 2020 — SN8 launches 12.5 kilometers (41,000 feet) and crashes into the ground
- February 2021 — SN9 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and crashes into the ground
- March 2021 — SN10 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet), lands, and explodes eight minutes later. That same month, SN11 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and hits the ground in several pieces.
- May 2021 — SN15 launches 10 kilometers (33,000 feet) and lands without a hitch, except for a small fire at the base
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