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Home / Science / The wild science behind Starship, the planet hopping rocket of Elon Musk

The wild science behind Starship, the planet hopping rocket of Elon Musk




Loren Elliot / Getty Images

Imagine a rocket that could take off and land 1

,000 times a year with the reliability of an airplane. Does that sound incredible? That's what Elon Musk announces as the next big SpaceX company, and considering the considerable hype surrounding the project, there could be a method for insanity. On Saturday, September 28, Musk unveiled the first prototype of a Starship vehicle audience in Boca Chica, Texas.

The 50-meter-high vehicle was teased for the first time by Musk three years ago and is intended to transport people, satellites, cargo or anything you can fit into space.

Its load capacity of 100,000 kilograms is more than any currently operating rocket. While the entire system is reusable and makes frequent and abundant travel in and out of space. It will hit the market on a big booster named Super Heavy, which is itself 68 meters high.

The Super Heavy is also reusable and with 37 of the company's new Raptor engines compared to the six Starship-powered engines, take the backbone of Starship and its crew or cargo on a journey to another world. Together, the two represent a launch vehicle that is enormous in both its size and in its ambition.

"The scale [is unique]," says Jonathan Goff, President and CEO of startup Altius Space Machines. "Your upper tier [Starship] is larger than the outer tank of the Space Shuttle, which is huge. This thing is bigger than the Statue of Liberty from the platform. And their first stage [Super Heavy] is almost as big as the Saturn V ".

The ultimate goal of Starship is to launch up to 100 people simultaneously per flight. While Musk has ambitiously suggested launching people as early as next year, it will be interesting to follow the route there – whenever such flights take place.

Starship is built as a series of prototypes escalated in intention. At the event in Texas Musk introduced the so-called Mark 1 prototype. This vehicle, which gives a first glimpse of what Starship might ultimately look like, will reach a height of 20 kilometers in one or two months with its three Raptor engines without people on board.

SpaceX will then conduct a series of tests. More prototypes will be built in both Texas and Florida. The Mark 3 prototype will enter orbit, while a later version will ultimately carry people. And this gradual process, with all the successes and failures along the way, is a big change in the way rockets are built.

"It's extraordinary and extremely ambitious," says Robin Hague, a rocket engineer for the British carrier Skyrora. "It could actually be SpaceX's biggest innovation. [Normally] You would essentially have to build the vehicle completely and put everything through its paces. "

One key to this was the decision to switch from carbon fiber rocket to stainless steel about a year ago. Aside from a massive cost savings of $ 2,500 per ton of steel for $ 130,000 (£ 105,000), the robustness of the steel allows for a more rustic manufacturing process.

"Starship is not built in a factory but outdoors using welding," says space consultant Charlie Garcia of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "That's a big deal, because the last time we welded steel rocket ships was not far enough ahead. The fact that they were able to walk outside in the elements [build it] is proof of the ingenuity of the engineers.

Early Starship prototypes will launch alone, but the later full version will launch on Super Heavy. The two of them will travel together for a few minutes before Super Heavy breaks up and lands on the ground ready for another mission as Starship performs its intended mission.

For satellite launches, it offers a high payload on the front with a hatched nose cone that opens to unleash everything it has carried into space. According to SpaceX, with a diameter of nine meters and a height of 19 meters, this is the "largest payload volume of any current or developing launcher", enabling ambitious missions such as large telescopes.

For orbital missions such as the Moon or Mars, Starship will likely need to be refueled with another Starship vehicle in orbit before traveling. SpaceX then intends to land and launch the entire vehicle on other worlds.

The details of the ride on Starship are currently unclear. And so far, SpaceX has signed up for just one customer – Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. But Musk has previously talked about having entertainment on board for longer trips, such as the eight-month journey to Mars.

When Starship returns to Earth, steel comes into its own again and offers another advantage over carbon fibers, making it more resistant to the extreme re-entry temperatures. Normally, a spaceship needs to have significant head protection to withstand these temperatures, but Starship needs only a thin coating of ceramic tiles.

When it re-enters the atmosphere after completing its mission, large fin-like structures form on the surface. The vehicle will act as a compressed-air brake that slows down and controls the descent. The vehicle will fall through the atmosphere in a belly-flop position before turning and descending vertically to land on the ground, as well as SpaceX's existing Falcon 9 missiles. "The things that look like wings are not wings, they are best viewed as compressed air brakes, and Starship will fly sideways on his return, so he will use his flaps to fly through the air for control."

SpaceX's approach to starship However, it was not without criticism: one problem concerns how the life of the vehicle is maintained, which SpaceX has not yet explained, but Garcia notes that it makes more sense to develop it later, when the missile itself was ironed out. "Musk says, we do not have to worry now, "he says.

Another criticism is the lack of a launching system for Starship and Super Heavy, which saved two astronauts from surviving a Soyuz rocket last year no launch abort system, which led to the loss of seven astronauts in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

"It's a bit risky," says Goff he's the problem, if you're flying with 100 crew members, the launch crash is a bit tricky. "require minimal or no inter-flight checks. Musk has talked about reusing a single Starship vehicle 1,000 times a year, and reducing the workload – which the shuttle relied heavily on – is critical, "says Garcia." His goal is to bring starship through experience Would you rather be on the first flight of an airliner or on the 50th? "

Starship will, if or when it comes to realization, mean a big change in the global launcher industry reusable to orbit and beyond, the way we launch into space and access it will change forever, and even if Starship fires only satellites, it's considered a success and its operation is considerably cheaper as SpaceX's Falcon Rockets.

But the ultimate goal for Musk has always been to make people multi-netane He hopes he'll need a kind of futuristic vehicle that looks like it's been torn from science-fiction movies. A spaceship, maybe.

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