This evening, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will give an update about the design and future of the latest generation rocket from his company, Starship, a huge vehicle designed to take people to the moon, Mars and beyond. The concept for Starship has evolved in different ways in recent years and now Musk plans to unveil the latest blueprints for the vehicle.
Musk gives an hour-long presentation on the rocket at the SpaceX test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, a small town just north of the Mexican border. SpaceX has built a lot of test hardware for Starship on the site and the CEO will probably be surrounded by this shiny material during his speech. While looking at a large Starship test vehicle, watch for high-level test flights in the coming months.
It is unclear what exactly Musk will discuss. He mentioned on Twitter that this conversation is usually an update of the design for interested parties, although it may also address the long-term plans for Starship. The discussion starts at 8 p.m. ET; Here's what you need to know for the show.
The evolution of the spaceship
Musk has made it clear that his goal for SpaceX is to send people to Mars, and he has long talked about building a giant spaceship and rocket to realize that. In the early 2010s, Musk first referred to this then mysterious vehicle as the Mars Colonial Transporter or MCT, and also nicknamed it the BFR, which technically stands for Big Falcon Rocket (the "F" also refers to another word). But nobody knew how it would work or what it would look like.
In 2016, Musk finally unveiled the first concept for his Mars vehicle at a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico. He showed off animations for really huge hardware: a combination of rocket and spaceship that stretched more than 400 feet long and 37 feet wide. Forty-two new engines would be used to power the system, and it could carry up to 100 passengers to distant destinations. The vehicle even got a new name – the Interplanetary Transport System – because Musk claimed it could go much further than Mars. It would have been the most powerful rocket ever, easily overshadowing NASA & # 39; s Saturn V rocket that brought people to the moon.
A year later, Musk reduced the system. In another presentation at the IAC, this time in Adelaide, Australia, the CEO showed a leaner and shorter version of the rocket and the spacecraft that only needed 31 engines, not 42. He noted that the smaller version would make it easier to finance. "In last year's presentation, we were really looking at how we could pay for this," said Musk in 2017 at IAC. “We've gone through different ideas, Kickstarter, you know, the collection of underpants. These have not been released. But now we think we have a way to do it, namely to have a smaller vehicle. Musk claimed that SpaceX would eventually put all the resources in the new rocket, which would one day replace the capabilities of the company's current fleet of rockets. The vehicle also went back to the nickname BFR.
It took only a year for the architecture to change again. In September 2018, Musk announced the first commercial passenger for the rocket, the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, and gave more updates about the design of the vehicle. SpaceX decided to add three large fins to the spaceship and adapted the arrangement of the engines to the base. The name also changed quickly afterwards. In November 2018, Musk stated that the ship would now be called Starship, and the rocket that would go into space would be called Super Heavy.
Since then, details have changed even further, with the material for the vehicle switched from carbon composite to stainless steel. The design for the system remains very fluid, so today's update is justified.
What we know so far
Although Starship has a number of different looks and names over the years, a few important things have remained the same. First, the entire system relies on SpaceX & # 39; s new generation engine called Raptor. The hardware, tested for the first time in 2016, works on oxygen and methane, two materials that may be harvested on Mars. Each engine offers approximately 440,000 pounds of thrust, about twice that of the Merlin 1D engine that drives SpaceX & # 39; s current operational Falcon 9 fleet.
Moreover, Starship has always been a two-part system: a giant rocket and a spacecraft for passengers. Due to the gravity of the earth, the rocket amplifier is needed to fly the huge spaceship into space. To get out of our planet's orbit, a different, different kind of spaceship is needed. While the first passenger ship Starship is parked around the earth, another Super Heavy has to launch a second "tanker" Starship, one filled mainly with propellant gas. The tanker can then meet the Starship that is already in orbit and transfer its propellant gas to the vehicle, giving the ship enough fuel to travel to the moon or Mars.
Above all, it is meant to be reusable. Both the Super Heavy and Starship should be able to perform propulsive landings – where the vehicles lower themselves to a surface with their own engines. It is the same method that SpaceX uses to restore its Falcon 9 rockets after launch.
In the past year, SpaceX has really accelerated the production and testing of its Starship program. The company has built Starship components and prototypes in both Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the company launches the majority of its rockets. The locals in each area eagerly took photos of the production, keeping everyone informed of progress.
After a few engine tests in Texas, SpaceX conducted its first major test flight from Boca Chica in August. A prototype Starship vehicle, called Starhopper, flew to a height of about 500 feet, with one Raptor engine attached, and then landed again. It was the first time a Raptor had propelled the vehicle to any significant height.
SpaceX quickly eliminated Starhopper after that flight in August and is now focused on flying with its next vehicles. Teams at both Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral race against each other and build much larger Starship prototypes that look closer to the final design. The one in Boca Chica is nearing completion; the upper and lower halves were connected yesterday and three Raptor engines were mounted on the base. The purpose of these new prototypes is to fly even higher than Starhopper, possibly up to an altitude of more than 12 miles before landing back to Earth.
The future of the spaceship
Musk has many plans for the project, more than just bringing people to Mars. In recent years, he has been very outspoken about using Starship to start a moonbase – just as NASA promised to send people back to the moon. Musk even suggested using Starship to steer people around the world on super-fast suborbital flights, a concept known as point-to-point travel. He also noted that Starship does not have to carry passengers at all. Instead, it could be used to place a large number of satellites in orbit around the Earth or to replenish the international space station.
It is all very ambitious and even more ambitious is Musk & # 39; s timeline for everything. Known to propose unrealistic deadlines, the CEO foresaw that Starship would make its first escape job as early as 2022, with people flying to Mars by 2024. That is an incredibly fast reversal, especially since the Super Heavy part of the system has not even been built yet. The president of SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell accurately predicted last year Starship would do short hops at the end of 2019.
There are still many unanswered questions about the spatial ambitions of SpaceX – especially when it comes to the internal infrastructure needed to keep people alive in deep space and other worlds. So far we have mainly heard about the specifications of the propulsion systems of the vehicle, but the details of things such as habitats and ways to combat deep-space radiation have not been a point for attention. It seems unlikely that Musk will talk about those things today, but those topics should be part of the discussion long before anyone takes a ride on Starship.