Orbital launch in January? Elon Musk updates his vision for SpaceX’s spacecraft


EspaceX CEO Elon Musk presented a space travel scenario that sees his company’s Starship launch system make its first orbital test flight as early as January.

The spacecraft could undergo “a dozen launches next year, maybe more,” and be ready to send valuable payloads to the Moon, Mars and even the outer planets of the solar system by 2023, said Musk at a National Academies online meeting on November 17. ‘ Council for Space Studies and Council for Physics and Astronomy.

But he advised against sending anything too valuable on the first flight to Mars. “I would recommend putting the science mission hardware cheaply on the first mission,” he said, half-jokingly.

The National Academies presentation followed great speeches by Musk in 2016 (when Starship was known as the Interplanetary Transport System), 2017 (when it was known as BFR or “Big Frickin ‘Rocket”) and 2018 (when Musk moved to “Starship”).

Musk’s basic concept is the same: Starship and his giant Super Heavy booster would be a unique system that could be used for point-to-point suborbital travel, orbital space missions, and all kinds of travel beyond Earth orbit. , including moon landings. It would be able to lift more than 100 tons in low earth orbit (three times more than the space shuttle) and send 100 people to Mars at a time.

This week’s presentation provided further details.

The production model’s Super Heavy booster would have 33 methane engines rather than the 29 engines that were installed on the prototype. These would be next-generation Raptor 2 engines, each capable of 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of take-off thrust. The total thrust would reach 17 million pounds (7,700 metric tons), Musk said.

“That’s about 2.2, 2.3 times the thrust of a Saturn V,” Musk said. “It’s the biggest rocket ever, and we’re very close to our initial launch.”

The first orbital spacecraft and Super Heavy thruster are currently being tested at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Musk expected the launch pad and tower to be completed this month. “Then we’ll do a bunch of testing in December and hopefully launch in January,” he said.

This timeline is accompanied by several caveats. First of all, Musk is known to make upbeat projections about launch schedules. Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve the conduct of the launch, and some observers believe FAA approval is months away. Even then, success is not guaranteed.

“There’s a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I wouldn’t say it’s likely to be successful,” Musk said, “but I think we’re going to make a lot of progress.”

Musk said SpaceX has built a factory capable of making “a large number” of Starship rockets. And it will take a lot to realize Musk’s longer-term vision for colonizing the solar system, starting with a moon base and a city on Mars.

“In order for life to become multiplanetary, we might need a thousand ships or something like that,” he said.

Musk acknowledged that there are some technical challenges that still need to be fully addressed. In an exchange on Twitter, he said that even the Raptor 2 engine would not be enough to “make life truly multiplanetary”, and that a new class of rocket motors should be developed. In addition, Starship would need a insulation system still to be developed to keep supercooled propellants at their proper temperature for long journeys or for refueling in space.

In response to a question, Musk said the fully reusable launch system could likely start performing missions at a significantly lower cost than the List price of $ 62 million launch of Falcon 9 in two years.

“Obviously, we still have a lot to prove, but architecturally it is capable of transporting almost any arbitrary mass to any solid surface in the solar system,” Musk said.

The moon would be the target of two first Starship applications. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who owes visit the International Space Station next month pays an undisclosed price to go on a mission around the moon in around 2023, and NASA plans to use a version of Starship to land astronauts on the moon in 2025.

Longer term, Musk said Starship’s first two or three missions to Mars will be unmanned. “The first thing we would like to do is confirm that we can land the ship safely on Mars,” he explained. The first crewed trips to the Red Planet would likely be done in cooperation with NASA, “or maybe NASA and other countries,” he said.

Ultimately, the richest person in the world wants to see humanity spread across the solar system, with Mars as a foothold.

“I just think that being a multiplanetary species is a huge risk mitigation for human civilization,” he said. “As we know, if you wait long enough, Earth will become uninhabitable. So in the long run we’re obviously all dead, but I think the technology we’re developing by traveling from Earth to Mars will be a very powerful forcing function for the improvement of space transportation.

He draws a parallel with the development of maritime travel. “The first ships that crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific in the days of sailing were really terrible,” he said. “Once there was a reason to do large amounts of ocean trade, sailing ships improved tremendously. But you must have this override function. So that’s what’s going to happen I think. We will become much better in space transportation.

For Musk, the main thing is to keep the “delicate candle of consciousness” lit in our corner of the universe, even if life on Earth has fallen prey to an asteroid or some other type of event. extinction.

“If we have big rockets that could potentially do something about it, it could someday save billions of people,” he said.

Musk’s speech wasn’t all about Starship. Here are some additional sound clips:

  • Musk reiterated that he was working with Berkeley astrophysicist, Nobel Prize winner Saul Perlmutter on a plan that includes use Starship for a next-generation space telescope. “It’s about taking a target on the ground – a target that was meant for a ground telescope – and creating a space telescope with it,” he said. (We haven’t heard Perlmutter’s version of the story yet.)
  • SpaceX has worked with astronomers and regulatory agencies to minimize the impact of its Starlink broadband satellites on night sky observations. “Perhaps the most sensitive telescope to this is Vera Rubin [Observatory], and we worked directly with Vera Rubin’s team to make sure their observations weren’t affected by the Starlink satellites, ”Musk said. “My understanding is that at this point they are confident that it will not be interference for Vera Rubin. There is a slight risk of capacitor coupling between some of the sensors, which may create ambiguity, but we are confident that we can work around this problem.
  • Musk acknowledged that creating a city on Mars would raise issues of planetary protection. “There is basically a choice to be made, which is: are we going to try to be a multiplanetary species? Which would mean that at least in one place on Mars, there is human biology, ”he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to invalidate research on the rest of the planet, and Mars is a big planet.”
  • It should come as no surprise that Musk is a great solar power and battery storage booster, in light of the fact that Musk is the CEO of Tesla as well as SpaceX. But he also said he was “actually pro-nuclear, when it comes to fission, and there’s also hydropower and geothermal power” as well as wind power. He said all of these sources will likely be sufficient to meet Earth’s long-term energy needs without having to resort to nuclear fusion reactors or space solar power. (In contrast, rival billionaire Jeff Bezos has vaunted space solar power as a key motivation for marketing space.)
  • Musk said he’s often asked about the prospects of finding alien life. “I think that The Fermi Paradox is just an interesting question, ”he said. “I don’t know who said it, but there are either a lot of aliens or none, and each of the answers is just as terrifying.”

Update: Planetologist Carolyn Porco, who led the imaging team for NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and is now a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, challenged Musk’s outlook in a Twitter exchange:

Main Image: An artist’s design shows a Starlink rocket taking off from Mars. Credit: EspaceX.


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