Starship
Starship full stack.jpg
Starship rocket assembled and stacked at Starbase
Function
Manufacturer
Country of origin
  • United States
Size
Height
  • 120 m
  • 400 ft
Diameter
  • 9 m
  • 30 ft
Mass
  • 5,000 t
  • 10,000,000 lb
Launch history
Launch sites
Payload to low Earth orbit
Altitude
  • 500 km
  • 310 mi
Orbital inclination98.9 °
Mass
  • 100 t
  • 220,000 lb
Volume
  • 1,000 m³
  • 35,000 ft³
Payload to Moon
Mass
  • 100 t
  • 220,000 lb
Volume
  • 1,000 m³
  • 35,000 ft³
Payload to Mars
Mass
  • 100 t
  • 220,000 lb
Volume
  • 1,000 m³
  • 35,000 ft³
First stage – Super Heavy
Height
  • 70 m
  • 230 ft
Diameter
  • 9 m
  • 30 ft
Powered by
Propellant
Second stage – Starship
Height
  • 50 m
  • 170 ft
Diameter
  • 9 m
  • 30 ft
Powered by
Propellant

Starship is a fully reusable super heavy-lift launch vehicle that is currently being developed and manufactured by American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX. The rocket will consist of the Super Heavy booster stage and the Starship spacecraft on top, and will be mainly constructed out of stainless steel. In total, Starship is the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever built. Both stages combust liquid oxygen and methane with variants of Raptor engines. The booster may land on mechanical arms on the launch tower, while the spacecraft can move its flaps to control its descent. The planned tanker variant may fuel other Starships in orbit, before they send 100 t (220,000 lb) to low Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars.

Such a rocket was first outlined by SpaceX as early as 2005, with its design and name changed frequently. In July 2019, Starhopper, a prototype vehicle with extended fins, was able to successfully hover. In May 2021, Starship SN15 successfully flew to 10 km (6 mi) and landed, after four failed attempts by previous prototypes. As of May 2022, the first Starship rocket is planned to launch in 2022 pending regulatory approval.[1] The rocket's development is iterative and incremental with testing and manufacturing of prototypes. However, critics have noted its potential damage to the natural and social environment around the sites.

SpaceX plans to construct launch sites at Starbase, Kennedy Space Center, and two offshore launch platforms. In the near-term, Starship may deploy satellites and space probes, serving space tourists, and exploring the Moon via the Artemis program. Further into the future, the rocket may travel between locations on Earth and aid SpaceX's ambition of colonizing Mars. Such operation level is only possible due to reduced launch cost.

Background

Further information: History of SpaceX, SpaceX reusable launch system development program, and SpaceX Starship development

White sleek rocket in flight
SpaceX illustration of the 2016 Interplanetary Transport System
White rocket in flight with fins at the middle
SpaceX illustration of the 2018 Big Falcon Rocket in flight

In November 2005, in the United States, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first referenced a rocket concept known as BFR (Big Falcon Rocket), which matched some capabilities of the current Starship design. The rocket was to be equipped with a larger version of the Merlin engine known as Merlin 2. Very little about the concept is known, except its lifting capacity of 100 t (220,000 lb) to low Earth orbit, and its inability to relaunch.[2] The announcement of this concept roughly coincided with the company's first (and ultimately unsuccessful) launch attempt, carrying FalconSAT-2 on the small Falcon 1 rocket.[3]

In 2011, SpaceX outlined a reduced-cost Mars mission using the Red Dragon capsule, a modified version of Dragon 1 capsule.[4] This plan was eventually abandoned around 2017, when the propulsive landing technology for the Dragon capsule was deemed unnecessary.[5] One year later, in 2012,[6] the company revisited the plan in the form of the Mars Colonial Transporter concept. The concept design was powered by methane-fueled Raptor engines, with a capacity of one hundred people or 100 t (220,000 lb) of cargo to Mars. Other than that, little information about the concept has been made public.[7] A few years later, in September 2014, SpaceX broke ground on the Starbase facility for developing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.[8] The next year, in December 2015, the company's reusable launch system development program achieved the first booster landing at Falcon 9 flight 20.[9]

In September 2016, a day before the 67th International Astronautical Congress, the Raptor engine fired for the first time.[10] At the event, Musk announced that SpaceX was developing a new rocket, the Interplanetary Transport System. It would have a launch capacity of 300 t (660,000 lb) to low Earth orbit, with both stages being reusable. This concept presented the possibility of a veritable "space tanker": a launch vehicle capable of carrying extra fuel to orbit, transferring said fuel to another spacecraft in orbit, landing, and then repeating the process. The rocket's tanks were to be made from carbon composite, storing liquid methane and liquid oxygen inside. The booster stage was to be equipped with forty-two Raptor engines while the spacecraft would have been equipped with nine.[11] The concept garnered a great deal of skepticism, specifically in regards to the technological feats required to make such a system possible, and the funds needed.[12]

In September 2017, at the 68th Annual International Astronautical Congress, Musk announced the BFR, a revision to the Interplanetary Transport System's design. The rocket was said to be able to put 150 t (330,000 lb) to low Earth orbit and be reusable. The booster's engine count was reduced to thirty-one, and the rocket's body was smaller. Unlike its conceptual predecessor, the potential applications for the BFR were far more varied: sending satellites to orbit, resupplying the International Space Station, landing on the Moon, and traveling between locations on Earth. Nevertheless, its ultimate purpose was still to ferry crew to Mars.[13] A rocket production facility at the Port of Los Angeles had received approval by City Council, but the plan was cancelled around May 2020.[14]

In September 2018, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced the sponsored dearMoon project, led by Maezawa himself. With six to eight other artists, the crew would fly a free-return trajectory around the Moon on a BFR spacecraft, creating artworks throughout the mission. Musk commented that the project gave considerable funding to the rocket's development. After Maezawa's announcement, Musk showed the rocket's new addition of flaps, two at the top and three at the bottom. These flaps could be adjusted to control the spacecraft's descent, and the bottom flaps could have also been used as landing legs.[15] Two months later, in November 2018, the rocket booster was first termed Super Heavy, and the spacecraft was termed Starship.[16]

Development

Main articles: SpaceX Starship development and List of SpaceX Starship launches

The approach to Starship's development is iterative and incremental,[17] and mostly funded by SpaceX itself.[18] The company has now built and tested nine full-scale models of the Starship upper stage, and scrapped numerous others before completion.[19] The tests conducted range from proof pressure tests and static fires to full flight tests with attempted recovery.[20]: 15–19  Due to the company's openness to space news outlets, Starship rocket tests have received significant coverage.[21]

Reception to Starship development has been mixed among local communities, especially from cities near the Starbase spaceport. Proponents of SpaceX's arrival claimed the company would provide money, education and job opportunities. Starbase was constructed relatively close to the BrownsvilleHarlingenSan Benito metropolitan area, which was near the bottom of 2010's list of United States metropolitan areas by per capita income.[22] Local governments have stated that SpaceX boosted the local economy, by hiring local residents and increasing investment.[23]

Meanwhile, opponents of the plan claimed that the company encourages Brownsville's gentrification and over-reliance on STEM fields.[24] They also highlighted the spaceport's dishonest planning: Starbase was originally planned to only launch Falcon rockets; however, the site was exclusively used to test Starships without being reassessed for environmental damage. Some of the failed tests have resulted in large explosions which scattered debris around the Boca Chica Beach at Cameron County, causing major disruption to nearby wildlife reserves. SpaceX has also been criticized for interfering with Boca Chica residents' daily lives, as nearby beaches and roads are closed frequently.[25] Because of this, some residents have moved or demanded financial reparations from the company.[23]

Low-altitude flights

Short steel rocket with its fins touching the ground
Starhopper while under construction
Crane hooking onto a steel vessel body
A crane lifting Starship SN5

The first prototype to fly using a Raptor engine was the Starhopper.[26] The vehicle had three non-retractable legs[27] and was shorter than the final spacecraft design. The craft performed two tethered hops in early April 2019 and two months later, hopped without a tether to 20–30 m (70–100 ft).[28] In August 2019, the vehicle hopped to 150 m (500 ft) and traveled to the landing pad 100 m (300 ft) away.[29] As of August 2021, the vehicle has been retired and repurposed; it is now a mounting point for radio communication, weather, ground station equipment, and a water tank.[27]

SpaceX subsequently constructed the "Starship Mk1" and "Starship Mk2" upper-stage prototypes, located at Starbase and the SpaceX facility in Cocoa, Florida, respectively. In late September 2019, Musk presented more details about the lower-stage booster, the upper stage's method to control its descent, its heat shield, orbital refueling capacity, and potential destinations outside Mars.[30] The spacecraft design was once again changed, reducing the number of aft flaps from three to two. Musk mentioned the switch of Starship material from carbon composites to stainless steel, citing its lower cost, high melting point, cryogenic temperature strength, and ease of manufacturing.[31] After the presentation, Mk1 was destroyed during a pressure stress test two months later and Mk2 did not fly because the Florida facility was deconstructed throughout 2020.[32][33]

In January 2020, SpaceX bought two drilling rigs from Valaris plc for $3.5 million, each during the latter's bankruptcy proceedings; it planned to repurpose them as offshore spaceports.[34] SpaceX began naming its new Starship upper-stage prototypes with the prefix "SN". No prototypes between SN1 and SN4 flew, as SN1 and SN3 collapsed during a proof pressure test and SN4 exploded after its fifth engine firing.[27] During the interval, the company accelerated the construction of infrastructure at Starbase, which used large tents, stations, and repurposed intermodal containers. When linked together, these facilities functioned as a production line, hastening rocket construction.[35]

In June 2020, SpaceX began construction of a launch pad for orbit-capable Starship rockets.[36] Around that time, Starship SN5 was built, the lack of flaps or nose cone giving it a distinctive cylindrical shape. The test vehicle only consisted of one Raptor engine, full-size propellant tanks, and a mass on top. SN5 performed a 150 m (500 ft)-high flight on 5 August 2020, successfully landing on a nearby pad.[37] On 3 September, the similar-looking Starship SN6 successfully repeated the hop.[38] A week later, SpaceX stress tested a fuel tank, designated SN7.1, that was constructed from SAE 304L stainless steel grade, instead of the previous tanks' SAE 301 steel grade.[39] In the same September, the company first fired its Raptor Vacuum engine.[40]

High-altitude flights

Steel rocket on a mount
Starship SN9 on a mount with its flaps closed
Animation depicting a successful test flight following the flight profile of SN8 to SN15. The video can also be viewed at its entry on Wikimedia Commons.

SN8 was the first complete Starship prototype and underwent four static fire tests between October and November 2020. The third test ingested fragments of pad material into its engine internals, causing a premature shutdown.[27] The fourth static fire was successful, and on 9 December 2020 SN8 flew, reaching an altitude of 12.5 km (7.8 mi). However, a few seconds before touchdown, a propellant flow issue caused the prototype to lose thrust and impact the pad.[41] The test provoked condemnation from FAA Associate Administrator Wayne Monteith, as SpaceX had ignored FAA warnings that weather conditions at the time could have worsened damage from a possible in-flight explosion to nearby homes.[42] Two months later, on 2 February 2021, Starship SN9 launched on an identical flight path and also crashed on landing.[43]

In March 2021, the company sent a public construction plan to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which had two sub-orbital launch pads, two orbital launch pads, two landing pads, two test stands, and a large tank farm that stores propellant. The company proposed transforming the surrounding village of Boca Chica into a company town named Starbase,[44] raising concerns about SpaceX's authority, power, and potential abuse for eviction.[45] On 3 March 2021, after an initially aborted launch, Starship SN10 launched on the same flight path as its two predecessors. The vehicle then landed hard and crushed its landing legs. Minutes later, it exploded due to a propellant tank rupture.[46]

After approval from the FAA,[47] on 30 March 2021, Starship SN11 flew into thick fog along the same flight path. The vehicle exploded during descent, scattering debris up to 8 km (5 mi) away.[48] In early April 2021, the orbital launch pad's fuel storage tanks began to be mounted.[36] Around the same time, despite a few earlier misgivings about its complexity,[49] NASA selected Starship HLS as the crewed lunar lander.[50] The decision was disputed by Blue Origin and sparked a six-month-long legal battle, titled Blue Origin v. United States & Space Exploration Technologies Corp.[51] Meanwhile, Starship models SN12, SN13, and SN14 were all scrapped before completion, and Starship SN15 was selected to fly instead. On 5 May 2021, SN15 launched, completed the same maneuvers as older prototypes and landed softly, completing the first successful high-altitude test.[52]

Planned orbital launches

Workers near a tall spacecraft with heat shield
Examination of Starship SN20's heat shield
Steel rocket firing its engines
Engine firing of Starship SN20 near Super Heavy boosters and launch tower

In July 2021, Super Heavy BN3 conducted its first partial static fire, successfully lighting three engines.[53] Super Heavy BN4 was the first design to mate with a Starship upper stage, while Starship SN20 was the first to feature a body-tall heat shield, mostly made of black hexagonal heat tiles. A month later, Starship SN20 was stacked atop of Super Heavy BN4 for the first time using cranes.[54] In October 2021, the catching mechanical arms were installed onto the launch tower (forming the booster recovery system) and the last tank thermal insulation cover was installed (marking the completion of the first tank farm).[36] On 26 November 2021, a day after Thanksgiving in the United States, Musk sent an internal email to all SpaceX employees saying that the Raptor engine's production line was not sufficiently mature, thus creating a risk of bankruptcy for the company.[55]

Two weeks later, north of Launch Complex 39B, NASA and SpaceX announced their plans to create Launch Complex 49, which will launch Starship rockets from the Kennedy Space Center.[56] In February 2022, after stacking Starship SN20 on top of Super Heavy BN4 using mechanical arms for the first time,[57] Musk gave a presentation on Starship development at Starbase. There, he clarified much of the information provided in the past, and gave updates on Starship HLS, Raptor engine production, the environmental assessment of Starbase, and the reopening of the Florida facility.[58] The next month, in March 2022, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told that the company would stop production of new Crew Dragon capsules, focusing its effort on crewed Starship missions.[59]

As of 21 March 2022, SpaceX plans to conduct the first orbital spaceflight of Starship by May 2022.[60] The company explained the planned trajectory in a report sent to the Federal Communications Commission. The rocket is planned to launch from Starbase; then the Super Heavy booster will separate and perform a soft water landing around 30 km (20 mi) from the Texan shoreline. The spacecraft will continue flying with its ground track passing through the Straits of Florida, and then softly land in the Pacific Ocean around 100 km (60 mi) northwest of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. The whole spaceflight will last ninety minutes.[61][62]

Design

Starship is designed to be a fully reusable orbital rocket, aiming to reduce launch costs drastically.[63] One launch may deliver more than 100 t (220,000 lb) to low Earth orbit, which would formally classify the rocket as a super heavy-lift launch vehicle.[64] When stacked and fueled, Starship may be about 5,000 t (11,000,000 lb) by mass,[66] 9 m (30 ft) wide,[67] and 120 m (390 ft) high,[68] taller than the Saturn V by 9 m (30 ft).[69] The rocket will consist of a Super Heavy first stage or booster and a Starship second stage or spacecraft.[70] powered by Raptor and Raptor Vacuum engines.[19] These rocket stages' reusability and stainless-steel construction has influenced other rockets such as the Terran R[71] and Project Jarvis.[72]

Manufacturing of the Starship rocket starts with rolls of stainless steel[35] of SAE 304L grade.[39] These rolls are unrolled, cut, and welded along the cut edge to create a cylinder. Each of these cylinders is 9 m (30 ft) in diameter, 2 m (7 ft) in height, and around 1,600 kg (4,000 lb) in mass. To make the outer layer of the Starship spacecraft, seventeen of these cylinders and nose cones are stacked and welded along their edges. Inside the body are domes, separating liquid methane and oxygen tanks at high pressure. These domes are made by robots and welded at the rate of ten minutes per seam. Afterwards, they are inspected by an X-ray machine.[35][dubious ]

Raptor engine

Main article: SpaceX Raptor

A rocket engine with nozzle and intricate plumbing
Sea level-optimized Raptor engine
Rocket engine firing with purple-orange flame
First test firing of the sea-level Raptor engine, with methane combusted to produce a purple-orange flame

Raptor is a family of rocket engines used in Starship made by SpaceX. In a full-flow staged combustion cycle, it combusts liquid oxygen and methane. The whole family uses a new alloy and can obtain 300 bar (4,400 psi) inside the main combustion chamber. These engines can fire many times,[73] with their nozzles cooled by surrounding running propellant, called regenerative cooling.[19] In the future, the engine family may be mass-produced,[73] costing about $230,000 per engine and $100 per kilonewton.[19]

The Raptor family is the only full-flow staged combustion cycle engine currently in production. In the past, the Soviet Union and the United States tried to construct such an engine, but both products have never been put in use.[73] A general full-flow staged combustion cycle engine has two preburners connected to their matching turbopumps.[74] One of the preburners is fed with an oxygen-rich mixture and the other is fed with a propellant-rich mixture, combusting a small amount to spin the matching turbines. The cycle then feeds all gaseous propellant mixture into the combustion chamber, unlike other engine cycles that waste some propellant. This increases the engine's chamber pressure, making more thrust and being more efficient overall.[73]

Methane was chosen for the Raptor engines since it may be cheaper, does not accumulate soot,[73] and can be produced on Mars via the Sabatier reaction,[75] among other reasons.[73] The engines run at an oxygen to methane mass ratio of 3.6 : 1,[76] as combusting a stoichiometric mixture of 4 : 1 would overheat and damage them.[19] The exhaust contains carbon dioxide and water, with a trace amount of carbon monoxide and nitric oxide. The plume stretches about 65 m (213 ft) at full power,[76] longer than the Starship spacecraft by about 15 m (49 ft).[77] When clustered inside a rocket stage, the inner engines' plumes do not interact with the air right away, so the cluster's plume may be much longer.[76]

SpaceX builds multiple other variants of Raptor. The company specifies the Raptor engine has a ratio of throat area to exit area of 1:34.[76] Another is the Raptor Vacuum, designed to be fired in space. It is equipped with a nozzle extension made from brazed steel tubes, increasing the throat area to exit area to 1:90 and specific impulse or fuel efficiency to 380 seconds. The Raptor 2 is the next generation in the family; the engine may produce 2.3 MN (520,000 lbf) of thrust, with its specific impulse reduced by 3 seconds.[19] The new generation of Raptor simplified the design of the earlier version.[58] In the long term, SpaceX plans to make three variants of Raptor: sea level-optimized engine with gimbaled thrust, sea level-optimized engine without gimbaled thrust, and vacuum-optimized engine without gimbaled thrust.[19]

Super Heavy booster

Super Heavy is a booster or first stage of the rocket, located at the bottom. The booster measures 70 m (230 ft) tall,[67] housing up to thirty-three sea level-optimized Raptor engines. The engine cluster may be more than twice as powerful as the Saturn V.[78] The booster's tanks can hold 3,600 t (7,900,000 lb) of propellant, consisting of 2,800 t (6,200,000 lb) of liquid oxygen and 800 t (1,800,000 lb) of liquid methane.[19][79] Without propellant, Super Heavy's dry mass is estimated to range between 160 t (350,000 lb) to 200 t (440,000 lb). Of which, the tanks weigh 80 t (180,000 lb), the interstage between the booster and spacecraft weigh 20 t (44,000 lb), and all the engines and mounts weigh 52 t (115,000 lb).[19]

The booster is equipped with four grid fins, each with a mass of 3 t (6,600 lb). These grid fins are not spaced evenly for obtaining more pitch control and can only rotate in the roll axis.[19] They may control the booster's descent and work as a mounting point for a touchdown into the tower's mechanical arms. Though catching Super Heavy requires great precision, this may reduce the turnaround time after landing and enable more frequent launches.[80] To control the booster's orientation, it may fire cold gas thrusters fed by evaporated propellant inside tanks. While Super Heavy and Starship are attached in space, the booster can move its engines and separates from the spacecraft.[19]

Starship spacecraft

Panorama of stainless steel spacecraft
Leeward angle of Starship SN16 spacecraft
Spacecraft firing its engines with a large plume below
Starship SN8 spacecraft's test flight that launched vertically. The spacecraft would also land in this orientation, after the belly-flop maneuver.

Starship is a spacecraft or second stage of the rocket, located at the top. The spacecraft is 50 m (160 ft) tall,[67] with a dry mass of less than 100 t (220,000 lb).[19] By refueling the Starship spacecraft using tanker spacecraft, Starship may carry payloads and astronauts to higher Earth orbits, the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the Solar System.[70] The spacecraft has two main and two header tanks,[81] for a total of 1,200 t (2,600,000 lb) capacity.[65] Each of its main and header tanks hold a type of propellant, either liquid oxygen or methane, with the header tanks being reserved to flip and land the spacecraft.[27] At the bottom of Starship are six Raptor engines, with three operating in the atmosphere while the other three Raptor Vacuum may run in space.[19]

The spacecraft has four body flaps to control the spacecraft's falling velocity and orientation, with two forward flaps mounted near the nose cone and two aft flaps mounted near the bottom.[27] The hinges that mount them are sealed with metal, as they are the most easily damaged part during reentry.[19] Starship's heat shield is designed to be used multiple times with no maintenance between flights.[63] It is composed of thousands of hexagonal tiles,[54] each mounted and spaced to counteract expansion due to heat.[63] The shape of these tiles prevents hot plasma from causing damage, allowing it to withstand temperatures of 1,400 °C (2,600 °F).[82] Starship payload volume may be as large as 1,000 m3 (35,000 cu ft), far larger than any other spacecraft.[64] The spacecraft nose cone as of August 2021 is made from two rows of stretch-formed steel.[19]

Variants

The cargo Starship spacecraft variant may feature a large door replacing conventional payload fairings, which can launch, store, capture, and return payloads. The payload door would be closed during launch, opened to release its payload once in orbit, and closed again during reentry. It may be possible to mount the payload on the inside of the payload bay's sidewalls using trunnions, more suitable for payloads on ride-share missions. Payloads may be integrated into a vertical rocket inside temperature-controlled, ISO class 8 clean air.[83]

The crew variant can be adapted for missions to the Moon, Mars, point-to-point flights, and other destinations. Each spacecraft can carry one hundred people, with "private cabins, large communal areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters, and a viewing gallery".[70] Starship's life-support system is expected to be closed, where resources are constantly recycled. Other than that, little information about it is provided to the public.[84]

The tanker variant can be used to refuel another spacecraft in orbit. According to Musk, up to seven launches of the tanker are needed to send a spacecraft to the Moon.[64] The concept was detailed by Musk in September 2019, by docking the ends of both spacecraft to each other. They then accelerate slightly toward the tanker using control thrusters, settling propellant to the fueled Starship.[65] In October 2020, NASA awarded SpaceX US$53.2 million to conduct a large-scale flight demonstration, transferring 10 t (22,000 lb) of propellant between the tanks of two Starship spacecraft.[85]

Starship HLS is a crewed lunar lander variant of the Starship spacecraft for NASA's Artemis program. The lunar lander may have windows and airlocks near the top,[86] along with an elevator and a set of thrusters to land on the Moon's surface.[87] The lunar lander may be able to carry a large amount of payload between outer space and the Moon. On an Artemis mission, it may launch ahead of the crew by up to a hundred days, accompanied with launches of refueling Starship tankers. Another variant of the lunar lander may be used for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program,[86] where scientific, exploration, and commercial payloads are tasked with being sent to the Moon.[88]

Mission profile

Artemis 3 launch profile of a human landing on the Moon, involving Starship HLS, Starship tanker variants, and Orion spacecraft
Artemis 3 launch profile of a human landing on the Moon, involving Starship HLS, Starship tanker variants, and Orion spacecraft
A short animation of Super Heavy's landing on mechanical arms. The actual landing speed is a few times slower.

An example launch complex at Starbase consists of a launch pad, a launch tower, and a tank farm. The launch pad has a water sound suppression system and twenty clamps, holding down the booster until launch.[36] The launch tower consists of steel truss sections, a lightning rod on top,[89] and a pair of mechanical arms that may catch and recover the booster.[90] Each tank farm consists of eight tanks: three for liquid oxygen, two for liquid methane, two for liquid nitrogen, and one for water.[36] Other tanks surrounding the area contain all other commodities, such as methane, oxygen, nitrogen, helium, and hydraulic fluid.[20]: 13 

Before launch, Super Heavy and Starship are stacked onto a launch mount and loaded with propellant.[36] Then, all thirty-three engines from Super Heavy fires and the rocket lifts off. After two minutes,[91] the stages separate via the conservation of angular momentum.[19] The booster flips its orientation and turns on its center engine cluster returning to the launch site, followed by a controlled descent, and a landing burn. It is then caught by a pair of mechanical arms and placed onto the mount.[92] After six minutes in the air,[91] the booster would only have about 20 t (44,000 lb) of propellant left.[19]

Meanwhile, the Starship spacecraft accelerates to orbital velocity and circularizes its orbit.[61] There, the spacecraft may be refueled by the Starship tanker variants, by docking both spacecraft to each other. Both then accelerate slightly toward the tanker using control thrusters, settling propellant into the fueled Starship. The refueled Starship then fires its engines and coasts to the destination.[65]

For landing on bodies without an atmosphere like the Moon, Starship turns on its engines and thrusters to slow down and land.[83] For other bodies with an atmosphere like Mars, Starship slows down by entering the atmosphere and is protected by a heat shield.[54] After atmospheric entry, Starship performs a belly flop maneuver, defined in a whitepaper as the control of its surface area, leading to the control of aerodynamic drag and terminal velocity.[93] Tim Dodd, American space and science communicator, analyzed the maneuver and highlighted its large propellant saving compared to the Falcon 9 first stage's landing.[94]

During landing, both liquid methane and oxygen header tank are used to feed the Raptor engines.[81] A pseudospectral optimal control algorithm predicted that the landing flip may make Starship overshoot the landing point by 100 m (300 ft). The simulation further predicted that the spacecraft would intentionally tilt 20° further from the ground's normal line and then reduce to zero on touchdown.[93] The spacecraft's landing may make more than 60 dBA at Brownsville, similar to Super Heavy landing's noise level and lower than rocket liftoff.[95]

Applications

Starship would replace all functions of SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets,[59] launching satellites and crew to Earth orbit and to other celestial bodies. As a heavy-lift vehicle, Starship is best suited to flying large satellites or multi-payload missions. It is hoped that its reusability will reduce the launch cost, expanding space access to more payloads and entities.[96] Musk predicts that Starship will cost less than $10 million for an orbital launch, but multiple experts claim otherwise, citing the rocket's multi-billion-dollar development cost and its current lack of external demand. Pierre Lionnet, director of research at Eurospace, also mentions that launch cost may not play a key role in certain science payloads.[97]

In addition to orbital and interplanetary flights, SpaceX plans to use Starship as a suborbital transportation vehicle. The United States Armed Forces have expressed interest in this notion, awarding SpaceX a $102 million contract to study the feasibility of delivering cargo anywhere in the world within an hour. However, point-to-point passenger flights have been met with skepticism, with critics emphasizing the plan's high cost, strain on the human body, and low safety.

If SpaceX's vision is fully realized, Starship will be able to launch up to three times per day.[91] This would cause large greenhouse gas emissions, as a space physicist roughly calculated that one launch is similar to continuously flying a plane for three years. Substantial carbon footprint may be seen from propellant production, transport and storage. However, analysis of rocket emissions in general is complicated and more research may be needed.[98]

Commercial

Starship is intended to launch the next generation of SpaceX's Starlink communication satellites.[99] A space analyst at Morgan Stanley, a financial services company, said that Starship and Starlink development are intertwined with each other. This is because improvements in launch capacity and cost aid Starlink satellite launches and Starlink profits can be fed back into Starship development.[100] A single orbital launch of Starship could place up to four hundred Starlink satellites into orbit; for comparison, Falcon 9 flights in 2019 and 2020 have launched a maximum of 60 satellites.[101]

One potential use for Starship is space tourism. An example is the dearMoon project announced by Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa. The project consists of a flight around the Moon with Starship, with its crew consisting of Maezawa and eight others. The other crews are selected via video submissions with applicants ranging from dancers, actors, photographers, artists, to athletes.[102] Another example is the third flight of the Polaris program announced by Jared Issacman, Mission Commander for the Inspiration4 mission, aimed to raise funds for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.[103]

The spacecraft may host point-to-point flights – coined "Earth to Earth" by SpaceX – by traveling between spaceports on Earth. For example, via this mode of transport, a flight between New York City and Shanghai is estimated to take about 39 minutes. SpaceX president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, predicted it could become cost-competitive with business class travel.[104] John Logsdon, an academic on space policy and history, said point-to-point travel would have a high acceleration, thus making it impractical for civilians.[105]

Space exploration

Starship juxtapositioned with the Moon, one of the spacecraft's future destinations
Starship juxtapositioned with the Moon, one of the spacecraft's future destinations

Starship may be capable of launching larger space telescopes, such as the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission that can directly image planets outside the Solar System.[96] Waleed Abdalati, a former NASA Chief Scientist, said the rocket may enable recovery of space debris, which are defunct artificial objects in space.[97]

Beyond Earth orbit, Starship may be immensely useful. Some planetary science researchers are beginning to incorporate Starship into their project plans, citing low cost and high launch capacity.[106] Starship may enable direct Hohmann transfers to other planets, lowering transit time. The probes it sends may be larger and more complex, allowing greater breadth and depth of scientific investigation.[97][64]

According to NASA's Ames Research Center, since Starship may have a large capacity, it may bring heavy machinery to destinations in space, such as drilling rigs on the surface of bodies. The mission may enable much more comprehensive research of their interiors and underground resources, which earlier rockets would not be able to do at a reasonable cost.[64] Starship may enable large experiments and sample-return missions of Moon and Mars rock. These missions could be integrated into SpaceX's test landings of the spacecraft[97] and designed to go to locations of interest. Such a mission may answer perennial problems in astronomy, such as past volcanism on the Moon or extraterrestrial life.[64]

Military

Although the United States military has not publicly announced any satellite launch contracts for Starship, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have both been used to launch payloads for the U.S. Space Force and the United States Department of Defense. Due to the increasing size and complexity of military satellites, it is likely that Starship will be used on future missions.[107] As of January 2022, SpaceX was awarded a $102 million, 5-year contract to develop the Rocket Cargo program. This will examine modifying Starship rockets to carry about 90 tonnes (200,000 lb) of military cargo to anywhere in the world within an hour, for tactical reasons or humanitarian aid.[108]

Space colonization

Further information: SpaceX Mars program

Artist's conception of a Starship spacecraft heading towards Mars
Artist's conception of a Starship spacecraft heading towards Mars

SpaceX has said its goal is to colonize Mars for the long-term survival of the human species.[109] Musk himself has been pursuing the goal since 2001 with the Mars Oasis program, where a rocket would launch a greenhouse to Mars. At the time, its purpose was to stimulate the space market and increase NASA's budget.[110] The final goal of the program is to send a million people to Mars by 2050, with a thousand Starships sent during a Mars launch window.[111] The Sabatier reaction may be used to create liquid methane and liquid oxygen on Mars in a power-to-gas plant, fueling return missions.[75][112] On Earth, carbon-neutral propellant for Starship can be made, if atmospheric carbon dioxide and renewable energy are used.[113]

Although Musk said that the company may land the first humans on Mars before 2026, the goal is considered optimistic. Greg Autry, a space policy expert, said that such a mission might not happen before 2029, even with aid from NASA.[109] SpaceX has rated Starship HLS's propulsion, communications, and life-support system as technology readiness level 6 and 7 respectively, meaning the technology has been shown by prototypes. Super Heavy booster and propellant fueling function were rated technology readiness levels 4 and 5 respectively, meaning the technology has only reached 'validated' status.[114]: 52 [non-primary source needed] SpaceX has not detailed plans for life-support systems, radiation protection, and in situ resource utilization, even though they are essential for colonizing space.[84]

Facilities

Various spacecraft are being constructed inside bays
A bay at Starbase build site, hosting construction of prototypes
Launch site with a tank farm and launch tower
A launch complex at Starbase, showing a tank farm and a launch tower

The Starbase facility consists of a manufacturing facility and launch site[115] at Boca Chica, Texas. Both operate around the clock,[35] with at most 450 full-time employees who may be onsite.[20]: 24  The site hosted the STARGATE facility of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. SpaceX uses part of the facility for Starship development, while most is used by the university for the study and research of space technologies.[116] The site is planned to consist of two launch complexes, two payload processing facilities, a desalination plant, a natural gas power plant, a natural gas purifier, a liquefier, and a solar farm.[20]: 30–34  In March 2022, one of Starship SN8's flaps is on public display at Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport.[117]

Phobos and Deimos are the names of two Starship offshore launch platforms, both in renovation as of March 2022.[118] Before being purchased from Valaris plc in June 2020, they were oil platforms named Valaris 8501 and Valaris 8500.[34] These offshore platforms are nearly identical:[34] their main decks measure 78 m (260 ft) long by 73 m (240 ft) wide; their four columns measure 15 m (49 ft) long and 14 m (46 ft) wide; and their helicopter decks measure 22 m (72 ft) in diameter.[119] In February 2022, Musk stated that Phobos and Deimos are not in SpaceX's focus yet, however, he predicted most launches would start from offshore platforms in the far future.[57]

As of December 2021, the Kennedy Space Center is considering to have Starship launch pads at Launch Complex 39A and 49. Launch Complex 39A in the past had hosted Space Shuttle flights and Launch Complex 49 has been in the construction plan since 2014. If NASA approves these spaceports, the company will build them north of Launch Complex 39B and need room inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. The building has four high bays, three reserved for the Space Launch System, and NASA can lease the remaining bay for preparing Starship indoors.[120]

At McGregor, Texas, the Rocket Development facility tests all Raptor engines. The facility has two main test stands: one horizontal stand for both engine types and one vertical stand for sea level-optimized rocket engines. Other test stands are used for checking Starship's reaction control thrusters and Merlin engines. In the past, the McGregor facility hosted test flights of landable first stages: Grasshopper and F9R Dev1. In the future, an under-construction factory nearby will make the new generation of sea-level Raptors; meanwhile, SpaceX's headquarters in California will still build the Raptor Vacuum and test new designs.[121]

As of February 2022, at Cocoa, Florida, a facility processes raw materials for making heat shield tiles. In the past, workers at this facility constructed Starship Mk2 prototype in competition with Starbase's crews. In the future, it is going to expand to have Falcon rocket booster hangars and a Starship launch complex. According to Musk, if Starbase does not pass its environmental review, this facility will take over as a primary launch site.[122]

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