The design for SpaceX’s Starship(aka. Big Falcon Rocket) is really starting to come together! Over the holidays, sections of the Starship Hopper (a miniature version of the Starship) were photographed being put together at the company’s South Texas Launch Site. By mid-January, the parts were fully-integrated, forming the body of the stainless-steel prototype that would test the spacecraft’s overall architecture.
What followed, earlier this month, were tests of the Starship’s hexagonal heat shields to determine if they would offer sufficient protection during re-entry. And now, in anticipation of the spacecraft’s eventual launch, SpaceX released an eye-popping new rendering of the Starship that shows what it would look like reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
Since the end of the Apollo-era, one of the main goals of NASA, Roscosmos and other space agencies has been the development of technologies that will enable a long-term human presence in space. These technologies will also help when it comes time to mount renewed missions to the Moon, to Mars, and other locations in the Solar System. Over the past few decades, these efforts have yielded Mir and the International Space Station (ISS).
In the coming years, these efforts will also lead to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and commercial space stations – like the Bigelow B330. And if private aerospace companies like the Gateway Foundation get their way, we’ll also have a spaceport in orbit around Earth. The company recently posted a video showing exactly what this rotating wheel space station will look like, and how companies like SpaceX could help build it.
This year, SpaceX will test out a miniaturized version of its super-heavy launch vehicle, which is known as the Starship (aka. the Big Falcon Rocket). This test launch will validate the design of the rocket and how it fairs at supersonic speeds and deals with the cryogenic environment of space. It will also serve as an opportunity to conduct the delivery of the next batch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.
Recently, Musk tweeted images of sections of the mini-Starship (Starship Alpha, the Starship hopper) being brought out at the company’s South Texas Launch Site in Boca Chica, Texas, for assembly. From the latest images that have been shared by multiple sources, it is clear that SpaceX crews have been working round the clock and through the holidays to get the hopper ready for its test flight later this year.
Elon Musk has been a busy man in recent years. In September of 2016, he unveiled his company’s plan for a super-heavy launch vehicle – the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). The following year, Musk presented the world with an updated design of the vehicle, which had been renamed the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and the Big Falcon Spacecraft (BFS). This past November, the launch system was renamed yet again to the Starship.
Musk also recently indicated that his company would be building a smaller version of the Starship to test the design. As the mission architecture has evolved, Musk has kept the public apprised of the progress of the ship’s construction. As usual, the latest update was provided via Twitter, where Musk shared images of the pieces of the mini-Starship ( aka. Starship Alpha) being rolled out in preparation for construction.
In September of 2016, Musk treated the world to an early sneak-peak at his proposed super-heavy launch vehicle. Previously known as the Mars Colonial Transporter, the renamed Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) was the centerpiece to Musk’s long-term vision of conducting commercial trips to orbit, to the Moon, and even to Mars. Since that time, the mission architecture and even the name of the system have changed a few times.
For example, in September of 2017 – during a presentation titled “Making Life Interplanetary” – Musk presented the world with an updated design of launch system, which had been renamed the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and the Big Falcon Spacecraft (BFS). And just recently, Musk announced the system will henceforth be known as the “Starship”, and its rocket the “Super Heavy“.
In September of 2016, Elon Musk unveiled his vision for a super-heavy launch vehicle, which would be SpaceX’s most ambitious project to date. Known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s plan of conducting space tourism with flights into orbit and to the Moon. It is also intrinsic to his vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars.
Ever since, the astronomical and aerospace community has been paying close attention to any updates provided by Musk on the BFR’s development. In his latest update, which was made via Twitter, Musk indicated that his company will be building a small, winged version of the massive spaceship component – the Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) – which will be launch-tested using a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket.
Elon Musk is well-known for his ability to create a media sensation. Scarcely a week goes by that the founder of SpaceX and Tesla doesn’t have an announcement or update to make – often via his social media outlet of choice, twitter. And as a major figure in the NewSpace industry, anything he says is guaranteed to elicit reactions (both critical and hopeful) from the space community and general public.
Just last week (on Monday, Sept. 17th), he revealed new information about the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and who its first passenger would be when it conducts its first lunar mission (which is planned for 2023). And on Friday (Sept. 21st), Musk shared some updated plans on when a SpaceX Martian colony could be established. According to the tweet he posted, his company could build a base on Mars (Mars Base Alpha) as early as 2028.
Ever since Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family back in September of 2016, the general public and space community has been eagerly awaiting updates on its progress. Known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s plan of conducting space tourism with flights into orbit and to the Moon. It is also intrinsic to his vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars.
Already this year, Musk announced that the BFR could be ready to make orbital launches by 2020 and showed the Main Body Tool that would build the BFR. And on Monday, September 17th – during a press conference at SpaceX headquarters in California – Musk announced who the first passenger aboard the BFR will be as it conducts its first lunar mission – the Japanese fashion innovator and globally recognized art curator, Yusaku Maezawa.
In September of 2016, Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family. Known then as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – now know as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) – this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars someday. Since that time, the space community has eagerly waited for any news on how the preparations for this rocket are going.
Musk further inflamed people’s anticipation by recently announcing that the BFR would be ready to conduct orbital flights by as early as 2020. While admittedly an optimistic deadline, Musk indicated that his company was building the presently building the ship. And according to a recent post on Musk’s Instagram account, a key component (the main body tool) for making the BFR interplanetary spaceship has just been completed.
It is important to note, however, that what is being shown here is not actually a part of the rocket. As Ryan Whitwam of Extreme Tech noted, what we are seeing in the post is a tool “that SpaceX will use to fabricate the rocket from carbon fiber composite materials that are lighter than traditional materials. Flexible resin sheets of carbon fiber will be layered on the tool and then heated to cure them. After heating, you’re left with a solid section of rocket fuselage. It’s essentially a carbon fiber jig.”
Nevertheless, from the size of the tool itself, one gets a pretty clear idea of how large the final rocket will be. SpaceX chose to illustrate the scale of the tool by placing a Tesla next to it for scale. For some additional perspective, consider the cherry Tesla Roadster (driven by Starman) SpaceX launched with the Falcon Heavy‘s maiden flight.
Whereas the payload capsule was barely large enough to house it, this car looks like it could fit inside any rocket turned out by this tool easily, and with plenty of room to spare. And while cars are not exactly the BFR’s intended payload, it is good to know that it will be no slouch in that department!
When completed, the BFR will be the largest and most powerful rocket in the SpaceX rocket family. According to the company’s own specifications, it will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter and will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb).
And as Musk indicated during an interview with Jonathon Nolan at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, it will even outpace the rockets that won the Space Race for the US:
“This a very big booster and ship. The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”
Once completed, Musk hopes to see the BFR performing service missions to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), the International Space Station, to the Moon, and – of course – to Mars. In addition to sending colonists there as early as the next decade, Musk has also expressed interest in using the BFR to conduct space tourism – flying passengers in luxury accommodations to the Red Planet and back.
In the end, it is clear that Musk and the company he founded for the purpose of reigniting space exploration are determined to make all of this happen. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how far and how fast they progress.
Elon Musk has a reputation for pushing the envelop and making bold declarations. In 2002, he founded SpaceX with the intention of making spaceflight affordable through entirely reusable rockets. In April of 2014, his company achieved success with the first successful recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage. And in February of this year, his company successfully launched its Falcon Heavy and managed to recover two of the three boosters.
But above and beyond Musk’s commitment to reusability, there is also his longer-term plans to use his proposed Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) to explore and colonize Mars. The topic of when this rocket will be ready to conduct launches was the subject of a recent interview between Musk and famed director Jonathon Nolan, which took place at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
During the interview, Musk reiterated his earlier statements that test flights would begin in 2019 and an orbital launch of the full BFR and Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) would take place by 2020. And while this might seem like a very optimistic prediction (something Musk is famous for), this timeline does not seem entirely implausible given his company’s work on the necessary components and their success with reusability.
As Musk emphasized during the course of the interview:
“People have told me that my timelines have historically been optimistic. So I am trying to re-calibrate to some degree here. But I can tell what I know currently is the case is that we are building the first ship, the first Mars or interplanetary ship, right now, and I think we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short sort of up-and-down flights probably in the first half of next year.”
To break it down, the BFR – formerly known as the Interplanetary Transport System – consists of a massive first stage booster and an equally massive second stage/spaceship (the BFS). Once the spacecraft is launched, the second stage would detach and use its thrusters to assume a parking orbit around Earth. The first stage would then guide itself back to its launchpad, take on a propellant tanker, and return to orbit.
The propellant tanker would then attach to the BFS and refuel it and return to Earth with the first stage. The BFS would then fire its thrusters again and make the journey to Mars with its payload and crew. While much of the technology and concepts have been tested and developed through the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the BFR is distinct from anything else SpaceX has built in a number of ways.
For one, it will be much larger (hence the nickname, Big F—— Rocket), have significantly more thrust, and be able carry a much larger payload. The BFR’s specifications were the subject of a presentation Musk made at the 68th International Astronautical Congress on September 28th, 2017, in Adelaide, Australia. Titled “Making Life Interplanetary“, his presentation outlined his vision for colonizing Mars and presented an overview of the ship that would make it happen.
According to Musk, the BFR will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter. It will carry 110 tons (~99,700 kg) of propellant and will have an ascent mass of 150 tons (~136,000 kg) and a return mass of 50 tons (~45,300 kg). All told, it will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb)
“This a very big booster and ship,” said Musk. “The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”
In addition, the BFR uses a new type of propellant and tanker system in order to refuel the spacecraft once its in orbit. This goes beyond what SpaceX is used to, but the company’s history of retrieving rockets and reusing them means the technical challenges this poses are not entirely new. By far, the greatest challenges will be those of cost and safety, since this will be only the third reusable second stage spacecraft in history.
The other two consist of the NASA Space Shuttles, which were officially retired in 2011, and the Soviet/Russian version of the Space Shuttle known as the Buran spacecraft. While the Buran only flew once (an uncrewed flight that took place in 1988), it remains the only Russian reusable spacecraft to have even been built or flown.
Where costs are concerned, the Space Shuttle Program provides a pretty good glimpse into what Musk and his company will be facing in the years ahead. According to estimates compiled in 2010 (shortly before the Space Shuttle was retired), the program cost a total of about $ 210 billion USD. Much of these costs were due to maintenance between launches and the costs of propellant, which will need to be kept low for the BFR to be economically viable.
Addressing the question of costs, Musk once again stressed how reusability will be key:
“What’s amazing about this ship, assuming we can make full and rapid reusability work, is that we can reduce the marginal cost per flight dramatically, by orders of magnitude compared to where it is today. This question of reusability is so fundamental to rocketry, it is the fundamental breakthrough that’s needed.”
As an example, Musk compared the cost of renting a 747 with full cargo (about $500,000) and flying from California to Australia to buying a single engine turboprop plane, – which would run about $1.5 million and cannot even reach Australia. In short, the BFR relies on the principle that it costs less for an entirely reusable large spaceship to make a long trip that it does to launch a single rocket on a short trip that would never return.
“A BFR flight will actually cost less than our Falcon 1 flight did,” he said. “That was about a 5 or 6 million dollar marginal cost per flight. We’re confident the BFR will be less than that. That’s profound, and that is what will enable the integration of a permanent base on the Moon and a city on Mars. And that’s the equivalent of like the Union Pacific Railroad, or having ships that can quickly cross the oceans.”
Beyond manufacturing and refurbishing costs, the BFR will also need to have an impeccable safety record if SpaceX is to have a hope of making money from it. In this respect, SpaceX hopes to follow a development process similar to what they did with the Falcon 9. Before conducting full launch tests to see if the first stage of the rocket could safely make it to orbit and then be retrieved, the company conducted short hop tests using their “Grasshopper” rocket.
According to the timeline Musk offered at the 2018 SXSW, the company will be using the spaceship that is currently being built to conduct suborbital tests as soon as 2019. Orbital launches, which may include both the booster and the spaceship, are expected to occur by 2020. At present, Musk’s earlier statements that the first flight of the BFR would take place by 2022 and the first crewed flight by 2024 still appear to be on.
For comparison, the Space Launch System (SLS) – which is NASA’s proposed means of getting to Mars – is scheduled to conduct its first launch in 2019 as well. Known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), this launch will involve sending an uncrewed Orion capsule on a trip around the Moon. EM-2, in which a crewed Orion capsule will delver the first module of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G, formerly the Deep Space Gateway) to lunar orbit, will take place in 2022.
The ensuing missions will consist of more modules being delivered to lunar orbit to complete construction of the LOP-G, as well as the Deep Space Transport (DST). The first interplanetary trip to Mars, Exploration Mission 11 (EM-11), won’t to take place until 2033. So if Musk’s timelines are to be believed, SpaceX will be beating NASA to Mars, both in terms of uncrewed and crewed missions.
As for who will be enabling a permanent stay on both the Moon and Mars, that remains to be seen. And as Musk emphasized, he hopes that by showing that creating an interplanetary spaceship is possible, agencies and organizations all over the planet will mobilize to do the same. For all we know, the creation of the BFR could enable the creation of an entire fleet of Interplanetary Transport Systems.
The South by Southwest Conference began on Friday, March 9th and will continue until Sunday, March 18th. And be sure to check out the video of the interview below: