Innovation

SpaceX Starship could help humans look 1,000s of light-years into space

SpaceX's planned ship will send humans to Mars, but it will also play other roles.

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The Starship, SpaceX’s planned rocket to send humans to Mars and beyond, could transform more than just space exploration.

On Monday, CEO Elon Musk suggested via Twitter that the ship would be able to launch “telescopes over 3X diameter of Hubble.” The Starship, under development at the Boca Chica facility in Texas, is expected to offer the ability to send over 150 tons or 100 people into space at a time – or for astronomers, an even bigger telescope than ever before.

What that says about Starship – The declaration demonstrates how Starship could do more than just enable SpaceX to build a city on Mars, expected to emerge sometime in 2050. The Hubble telescope, which launched in 1990, packs a primary mirror that measures eight feet (2.4 meters) in diameter. This is paired with a smaller, secondary mirror that reflects the image back through a hole in the primary mirror toward a camera sensor. A mirror triple the size would measure around 24 feet (7.3 meters).

What it means for astronomy – The European Space Agency explains that a bigger mirror means more light, and that means it can capture even fainter objects from even further. Consider the incredible shots Hubble has collected over the years, like the “Pillars of Creation” shot from the Eagle Nebula 7,000 light-years away, and imagine what could result from a camera that can peer even further into the deepest areas of the universe.

The Eagle Nebula's Pillars of Creation.Shutterstock

When Musk unveiled the Starship under the name BFR in September 2017, he explained how it would be used to cover all missions previously undertaken by SpaceX’s other rockets. That includes Falcon 9, which has been used to transport cargo to the International Space Station and will soon be used to send humans with the Crew Dragon. It also replaces the Falcon Heavy, which sent Musk’s red Roadster into space and currently ranks as the world’s most powerful rocket in operation.

SpaceX has big plans for the Starship. It’s expecting to send people point-to-point around the Earth in under an hour, with a configuration that could hold 1,000 people. In a roomier space configuration, it’s able to send 100 people to Mars and beyond with a fully-reusable design and a fuel source that can run from a planet’s resources. SpaceX has also discussed cargo configurations, and the first commercial mission in 2021 is expected to send up a telecommunications satellite. The Starship can also enable new possibilities, like capturing and repairing satellites in orbit.

A prototype Starship.Loren Elliott/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Starship's Super Heavy thruster can provide 16 million pounds of force, more than any other rocket – and that means new possibilities for astronomers.

So how does Musk’s proclaimed telescope size compare to others? It’s three times bigger than Hubble, but it’s not the largest telescope to ever go into space. That accolade belongs to the Herschel Space Observatory, which operated from 2009 to 2013 and had a mirror measuring 11 feet and five inches (3.5 meters). Musk’s post suggests the Starship could send this up fine. The telescope was sent up with the Ariane 5 rocket, which provides up to 2.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

It’s also not as big as the James Webb Space Telescope, a planned NASA, ESA and CSA telescope with a primary mirror of 21 feet, or 6.5 meters. It’s expected to launch with an Ariane 5 rocket in 2021, after delays and billions spent over budget, and it’s expected to complement the work of Hubble.

The Inverse analysis – Starship could send up telescopes measuring in a similar size, or even bigger, to the highly-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope. It could enable more scientific discoveries than ever before, enabling us to peer into the cosmos. It's just one of the many ways that the exploration enabled by Starship could enhance humanity's understanding of the universe.

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