Starship watch

SpaceX Starship: Elon Musk says next update may reveal final orbital design

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggests SpaceX's major rocket project will offer something very impressive this month.

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Starship, SpaceX's under-construction giant rocket, is about to make a big public appearance.

On October 2, CEO Elon Musk confirmed via Twitter the company's ambitious project, designed to send the first humans to Mars, will release an update "in about three weeks." This suggests an update sometime around October 23 — and it could give fans a glimpse at the final Starship design that will go into orbit.

"The design has coalesced," Musk wrote. "What is presented will actually be what flies to orbit as V1.0 with almost no changes."

The update may shed light on SpaceX's most exciting vehicle yet. This year, SpaceX has successfully completed two 500-foot "hop tests" with full-size prototype models of the Starship. These ships lacked the six Raptor engines expected on the final design, as well as visual extras like flaps and nosecone.

On September 26, Musk announced SpaceX would build the "SN9" prototype next month. The first flight would then reach 50,000 feet. It is unclear when SpaceX would aim for a full orbital flight, but at Musk's September 2019 presentation the CEO indicated he wanted to host an orbital flight in a matter of months.

The Starship is meant to transport up to 100 people or 150 tons into space at a time. Its fully-reusable design, paired with Raptor engines that use liquid oxygen and methane, means astronauts can fly to Mars, refuel using the planet's resources, and either return home or venture out further.

With these capabilities, the Starship could be used to establish an interplanetary transport network. Musk has spoken before about his plans to send the first humans to Mars by 2024, establishing a permanent city on the planet as early as 2050.

The Starship is central to these efforts. Musk has hosted annual updates on his Mars ambitions, and his ever-changing rocket that will fuel these plans, every year since 2016:

  • Musk's September 2016 presentation, held at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, outlined three key details of an Interplanetary Transport System.

First, that a ship would deliver 100 people to Mars at a time; that astronauts could refuel using Martian resources; and that the first ships could leave for Mars by 2022. Musk has stuck to this plan over the past four years. The main issue, as noted at the time, was SpaceX didn't have a clear way to foot the $10 billion development bill.

  • The September 2017 presentation, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, unveiled a new version of the system dubbed "BFR." Its official title, revealed later as "Big Falcon Rocket," hinted at Musk's emerging plan to fund the project.

The "BFR" would take on missions currently completed by the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, like satellite launches. This, combined with plans to offer city-to-city flights around the Earth, would help cover the cost of development.

  • The September 2018 presentation, held at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, revealed that the company would send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a trip around the Moon using the BFR.

The "Dear Moon" trip, still scheduled for 2023, would also include six to eight artists. Soon after the event, Musk announced the BFR's name as "Starship."

  • Musk's September 2019 presentation, held at the company's Boca Chica facilities in Texas, revealed the "Starship Mk.1" full-size prototype.

The ship was unveiled a month after SpaceX completed a "hop test" of 500 feet in the air with the miniature "Starhopper" ship, which sported a single Raptor engine. The final ship is expected to pair with a Super Heavy booster to help it leave the Earth, reaching a height of around 400 feet.

The Inverse analysis — If previous events are anything to go by, SpaceX's next showcase could be a landmark moment in the company's awe-inspiring project. Regular updates from Musk have kept fans informed over the past year. Paired with third-party photos of the Boca Chica facility, fans are likely to have a good sense of what to expect based on how work has progressed over the past year.

The presentation's most interesting point may be when Musk reveals the project's next steps. Questions remain about the timeline. For example: What is the timetable for an orbital flight? Is SpaceX still on track to send the first ships to Mars by 2022? When will the inter-Earth flights start? This event could offer some tantalizing tidbits about what the future looks like.

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