In Depth

SpaceX Starship: manned mission on course for 2020 launch

Elon Musk announces bold testing schedule as huge stainless steel rocket is unveiled

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has revealed the design of the new rocket that will take humans to the Moon and beyond.  

Unveiled to the world in a live stream from SpaceX’s launch site in Texas on Saturday, Starship is on course to become the most powerful rocket to date and carry up to 100 people “on long-duration, interplanetary flights”, the company tweeted.  

Standing in front of a “giant prototype” version of the stainless steel vessel, Musk told attendees at the event that Starship could make its debut flight in just six months’ time and possibly carry passengers as early as next year, The Verge reports.

“This thing is going to take off, fly to 65,000 feet – about 20 kilometres – and come back and land in about one to two months,” said Musk. 

Once the rigorous testing programme is complete, SpaceX will aim to use Starship to “carry crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars or anywhere else in the solar system” and safely return to Earth, says The Guardian.

What is SpaceX’s Starship? 

Starship is arguably SpaceX’s “most ambitious vehicle concept yet”, as the company intends to use the rocket to transport cargo and humans to the Moon and Mars, The Verge reports. 

Like the company’s other rockets, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, Starship has been designed to be “fully reusable”, the tech site says. This means the rocket can be landed in one piece, then be serviced and have any worn parts replaced before being sent on another mission.

Design

Described by The New York Times as a “giant, shiny and pointy grain silo”, the vessel unveiled during the live stream was a prototype version of Starship – though it closely resembles concept drawings posted by Musk earlier this year. 

The rocket’s most distinct feature is its reflective outer surface. The skin is constructed from stainless steel, as opposed to carbon fibre that’s commonly used in the aerospace world, the BBC reports. 

Musk elected to use the lightweight metal, which also performs well in extremely high and low temperatures, in a bid to keep costs down, the broadcaster notes. Steel costs $2,500 (£1,950) per tonne, while carbon fibre is $130,000 (£105,600) per tonne.

The four fins, two at the front and two at the rear, are designed to help maintain balance when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, the BBC adds.  

Powering the Starship prototype, which stands 50 metres high - excluding the booster stage, are three “next-generation” Raptor engines attached to the rocket’s base, says The Verge. The engines are activated during the ascent phase and to gently bring the vessel back to Earth during its descent.

How is it different to the Crew Dragon?

The Crew Dragon is the company’s first manned vehicle and is expected to make its first voyage with a pair of astronauts onboard by “no earlier” than 15 November, according to tech news site Teslarati

Based on the Dragon cargo vessel, the Crew Dragon is a small capsule that can carry up to seven occupants and is launched into orbit aboard one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets. 

Starship, meanwhile, will be able to carry up to 100 people at once, the Daily Express reports. This would make it by far the largest rocket ever created.

It’s powered by a “monstrous booster stage” that is equipped with 41 Raptor rocket engines, says the newspaper. That’s significantly more than the 27 Merlin engines that power SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, currently the most powerful rocket in the company’s fleet 

When will tests begin?

Testing is already well under way, as SpaceX has been trialling a single-engine test mule – known as Starhopper – since March.

However, testing of the full-scale prototype unveiled on Saturday will begin “within a month or two”, says the New York Times. During this testing, the rocket will travel 12 miles vertically before landing “in one piece”.

In six months’ time, SpaceX hopes to launch the rocket into orbit using the rocket booster assembly of its existing Falcon Heavy craft, the newspaper says. 

As for a manned mission, Musk told the paper: “I think we could potentially see people flying next year.” 

What about the first mission?

Initially, SpaceX will use Starship to transport paying tourists into orbit. The company named Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his eight chosen guests as the first customers of the programme, and intends to send them into space in 2023, Business Insider reports.

Musk hopes Starship can be used to transport humans and cargo to Mars over the next few years, with the aim of establishing the early foundations of a colony on the red planet by 2025, says Inverse

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