Elon Musk Unveils His Starship, Plans to Fly It in a Matter of Months

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Over the weekend, Elon Musk unveiled the first Starship prototype SpaceX has built. The company has set an ambitious test schedule for itself, with the vehicle possibly making a limited flight as early as November. The so-called Starship is actually the second stage of a two-stage rocket. The first stage is called Super Heavy. Combined, the two are known as BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket.

Mark-1-Engine

Image of the Mk 1 Starship engine, with three mounted Raptors. Credit: SpaceX

The 50-meter tall Starship, with its 9-meter payload fairing, is a significant step forward for SpaceX. Musk’s Starship is the vehicle he intends to use for Mars colonization and for pushing the boundaries of manned space exploration. Initial testing will be done with three Raptor engines, but the Starship vehicle is designed to mount up to six Raptors and may be tested with all of them depending on how the program evolves. The Mark 1 prototype unveiled over the weekend is not the only launch vehicle SpaceX is building; the Mk 2 prototype is already under construction in Florida.

Musk’s plans for Starship, if fully realized, would represent nothing less than a wholesale shift in how the human race approaches space travel. Starship is theoretically designed to hold up to 100 people, though Musk himself acknowledged that the life support systems required to support that many individuals in a trip to Mars do not yet exist. The rocket is designed to be reusable, and SpaceX wants to recover its prototype launch vehicles so it can conduct further testing on them over time, in order to better learn how to push the flight envelope and to improve the various landing and flight systems.

The prototype Starship. Image Credit: SpaceX

“This thing is going to take off, fly to 65,000 feet – about 20 km – and come back and land in about one to two months,” Musk said, in reference to the Mk 1 prototype. “So that giant thing, it’s gonna be pretty epic to see that thing take off and come back.”

The Starship has two steerable fins on its forward and aft sections, as well as four smaller fixed fins on the aft section, with two on each side. The tweet below contains an artist’s conception video of Starship taking off, with the first stage returning to Earth while the second stage approaches and docks with a Starship already in orbit. The maneuver is a demonstration of how fuel might be transferred between two craft; Musk has also drawn up plans for a Starship cargo vessel that would deliver fuel in this fashion. Refueling the Starship in space would allow the ship to fire its engines twice — once to reach orbit, and once to set its trajectory for Mars orbital injection (or whatever other location might be used).

Starship will be lofted into orbit on the Super Heavy, which has up to 37 Raptor engines and an estimated payload capacity of 150,000 kg to LEO. This exceeds even the final expected Block 2 configuration of the Space Launch System (SLS), which is expected to be capable of 130,000 kg to LEO and won’t be ready until 2029. The first block version of the SLS should be ready to fly by late 2021. Starship may make its first test flight in November, with full testing in 2020.

While Starship is expected to fly in 2020, this doesn’t mean Elon Musk’s Mars colonization effort will be kicking off next year — substantial work remains to be done in designing life support systems, not to mention the research and development required to support colonization.

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