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:
For years, Elon Musk and the company he founded to reduce the associated costs of space exploration (SpaceX) have been leading the charge in the development of private spaceflight. Beyond capturing the attention of the world with reusable rocket tests and the development of next-generation space vehicles, Musk has also garnered a lot of attention for his long-term plans.
These plans were the subject of a presentation made on Friday, September 29th, during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) – which ran from September 25th to September 29th in Adelaide, Australia. During the course of the presentation, Musk detailed his plans to send cargo ships to Mars by 2022, and to conduct regular aerospace trips between major cities here on Earth.
The presentation was aptly titled “Making Life Interplanetary”, and featured the latest news about SpaceX’s ongoing attempts to build the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). This massive rocket, which also goes by the code name BFR (Big F***ing Rocket), has been the centerpiece of Musk’s long-term goal to send colonists and cargo to Mars in the coming decade.
As Musk indicated, the ability to conduct regular trips to Mars and the creation of an aerospace transportation system are inextricably linked. Whereas the colonization of Mars involves creating a fleet of massive rockets, regular aerospace trips would be intended to finance their construction. In short, a downsized version of the ITS could be used to ferry people to and from locations on Earth from Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
As Musk explained to a packed auditorium at a global gathering of space experts in Adelaide:
“The most important thing… is that I think we have figured out how to pay for (BFR). Which is to have a smaller vehicle, it’s still pretty big, but one that can… do everything that’s needed in the greater Earth orbit activity.”
Musk also indicated that his company is developing the components for the ITS (BFR), and that construction of the first ship will start in six to nine months. He expressed confidence that at least two ships could be completed in about five years; at which point, cargo runs to Mars would commence. By 2022, he claimed, these ships would be sent to the Red Planet for the purpose of finding the best source of water.
This water source would be vital in the manufacture of rocket fuel for future return missions. It could also serve as a source of drinking water for the colony Musk has in mind. Other objectives would include the transportation of key infrastructure to Mars – which means bringing the necessary equipment to provide power, life-support, and mining operations for future missions.
This would be followed by four ships making the journey by 2024, which would be responsible for transporting people, equipment and supplies to Mars. Naturally, the price tag for these rockets and the trips they would make would be rather staggering. However, Musk also outlined a range of activities that the ITS would be engaged in that would finance the Mars missions.
These would include launching satellites, servicing the International Space Station, and conducting missions to the lunar surface. Beyond this, Musk also explained how the rockets (or a smaller version of them) could provide aerospace flights between major cities in record time. According to his calculations, he claimed that such flights could ferry customers between Bangkok and Dubai in just 27 minutes, or between Tokyo and Delhi in 30 minutes.
As Musk explained, this form of transportation through LEO would remove a lot of the hassles associated with regular flighst:
“Once you are out of the atmosphere, it would be as smooth as silk, no turbulence, nothing. There’s no weather… and you can get to most long-distance places in less than half-an-hour. If we are building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well.”
For those who recall Musk’s 2013 proposal for a “fifth mode of transportation“, there are certainly some echoes from his Hyperloop pitch. An means of transit that benefits from reduced air resistance, reduced noise, and can get people to their destinations in very little time. Of course, as with all aerospace ventures, there is the issue of how much an individual ticket would cost. But for those who could afford it, the convenience and novelty alone would be well worth price!
Beyond the questions of cost, there are also the numerous engineering and technical challenges that Musk’s latest proposals would entail. Because of the nature of Earth and Mars’ respective orbits, trips between Earth and Mars can only take place once every two years. In addition, it would take several months to reach Mars, during which time, the ITS and its crew would be exposed to significant amounts of radiation.
Such concerns are not new, and are also a major part of NASA’s proposed crewed missions to Mars – which are scheduled to begin in the 2030s. And taking on big challenges is hardly new to Musk, either. Whether it was the development reusable rockets, electric cars, or the Hyperloop, Musk is known for his ability to find solutions to problems and inspire others to do so as well.
The week-long annual International Astronautical Congress, which concluded on Friday, saw space agencies and private companies from around the world share their plans for the future of space exploration. These included the recent agreement between the Russian space agency (Roscosmo) and NASA to develop the first space station in cislunar orbit that would facilitate missions to Mars and beyond (aka. the Deep Space Gateway).
Other plans included missions to the Moon and Mars in the coming decades. Between NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, the IRSO, the CNSA, and JAXA, multiple orbiters, rovers and even crewed missions are expected to take to space in the 2020s and 2030s. After decades of being in a serious lull, it seems that we are embarking on a renewed era of space exploration.
In the meantime, check out Musk’s video of his proposal to use ITS rockets to conduct aerospace trips around the world:
And be sure to check out the live coverage of the IAC event:
It was with great fanfare that Elon Musk announced SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars with the Interplanetary Transport System.
I really wish they’d stuck to their original name, the BFR, the Big Fabulous Rocket, or something like that.
The problem is that Interplanetary Transport System is way too close a name to another really cool idea, the Interplanetary Transport Network, which gives you an almost energy free way to travel across the entire Solar System. Assuming you’re not in any kind of rush.
When you imagine rockets blasting off for distant destinations, you probably envision pointing your rocket at your destination, firing the thrusters until you get there. Maybe turning around and slowing down again to land on the alien world. It’s how you might drive your car, or fly a plane to get from here to there.
But if you’ve played any Kerbal Space Program, you know that’s not how it works in space. Instead, it’s all about orbits and velocity. In order to get off planet Earth, you have be travelling about 8 km/s or 28,000 km/h sideways.
So now, you’re orbiting the Earth, which is orbiting the Sun. If you want to get to Mars, you have raise your orbit so that it matches Mars. The absolute minimum energy needed to make that transfer is known as the Hohmann transfer orbit. To get to Mars, you need to fire your thrusters until you’re going about 11.3 km/s.
Then you escape the pull of Earth, follow a nice curved trajectory, and intercept the trajectory of Mars. Assuming you timed everything right, that means you intercept Mars and go into orbit, or land on its surface, or discover a portal to hell dug into a research station on Phobos.
If you want to expend more energy, go ahead, you’ll get there faster.
But it turns out there’s another way you can travel from planet to planet in the Solar System, using a fraction of the energy you would use with the traditional Hohmann transfer, and that’s using Lagrange points.
We did a whole article on Lagrange points, but here’s a quick refresher. The Lagrange points are places in the Solar System where the gravity between two objects balances out in five places. There are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Sun, and there are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Moon. And there are points between the Sun and Jupiter, etc.
Three of these points are unstable. Imagine a boulder at the top of a mountain. It doesn’t take much energy to keep it in place, but it’s easy to knock it out of balance so it comes rolling down.
Now, imagine the whole Solar System with all these Lagrange points for all the objects gravitationally interacting with each other. As planets go around the Sun, these Lagrange points get close to each other and even overlap.
And if you time things right, you can ride along in one gravitationally balanced point, and the roll down the gravity hill into the grasp of a different planet. Hang out there for a little bit and then jump orbits to another planet.
In fact, you can use this technique to traverse the entire Solar System, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond, relying only on the interacting gravity of all these worlds to provide you with the velocity you need to make the journey.
Welcome to the Interplanetary Transport Network, or Interplanetary Superhighway.
Unlike a normal highway, though, the actual shape and direction these pathways take changes all the time, depending on the current configuration of the Solar System.
If you think this sounds like science fiction, you’ll be glad to hear that space agencies have already used a version of this network to get some serious science done.
NASA greatly extended the mission of the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, using these low energy transfers, it was able to perform its primary mission and then investigate a couple of comets.
The Japanese Hiten spacecraft was supposed to travel to the Moon, but its rocket failed to get enough velocity to put it into the right orbit. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated a trajectory that used the Lagrange points to help it move slowly and get to the Moon any way.
NASA’s Genesis Mission used the technique to capture particles from the solar wind and bring them back to the Earth.
There have been other missions to use the technique, and missions have been proposed that might exploit this technique to fully explore all the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, for example. Traveling from moon to moon when the gravity points line up.
It all sounds too good to be true, so here’s the downside. It’s slow. Really, painfully slow.
Like it can take years and even decades to move from world to world.
Imagine in the far future, there are space stations positioned at the major Lagrange points around the planets in the Solar System. Maybe they’re giant rotating space stations, like in 2001, or maybe they’re hollowed out asteroids or comets which have been maneuvered into place.
They hang out at the Lagrange points using minimal fuel for station keeping. If you want to travel from one planet to another, you dock your spacecraft at the space station, refuel, and then wait for one of these low-energy trajectories to open up.
Then you just kick away from the Lagrange point, fall into the gravity well of your destination, and you’re on your way.
In the far future, we could have space stations at all the Lagrange points, and slow ferries that move from world to world along low energy trajectories, bringing cargo from world to world. Or taking passengers who can’t afford the high velocity Hohmann transfer technique.
You could imagine the space stations equipped with powerful lasers that fill your ship’s solar sails with the photons it needs to take you to the next destination. But then, I’m a sailor, so maybe I’m overly romanticizing it.
Here’s another, even more mind-bending concept. Astronomers have observed these networks open up between interacting galaxies. Want to transfer from the Milky Way to Andromeda? Just get your spacecraft to the galactic Lagrange point in a few billion years as they pass through each other. With very little energy, you’ll be able to join the cool kids in Andromeda.
I love this idea that colonizing and traveling across the Solar System doesn’t actually need to take enormous amounts of energy. If you’re patient, you can just ride the gravitational currents from world to world. This might be one of the greatest gifts the Solar System has made available to us.
For Elon Musk, it’s always been about Mars. Musk, and his company SpaceX, haven’t always been explicit about how exactly they’ll get to Mars. But SpaceX’s fourteen years of effort in rocketry have been aimed at getting people into space cheaper, and getting people to Mars.
Musk has revealed hints along the way. One of the boldest was his statement at Code Conference 2016. At that conference he said, “I think, if things go according to plan, we should be able to launch people probably in 2024, with arrival in 2025.”
He went on to explain it this way: “The basic game plan is we’re going to send a mission to Mars with every Mars opportunity from 2018 onwards. They occur approximately every 26 months. We’re establishing cargo flights to Mars that people can count on for cargo.”
Those comments certainly removed any lingering doubt that Mars is the goal.
But a recent Tweet from Musk has us wondering if Mars will just be a stepping stone to more distant destinations in our Solar System. On Sept. 16th, Musk tweeted:
Turns out MCT can go well beyond Mars, so will need a new name…
And the new name is Interplanetary Transport System (ITS).
So, is SpaceX developing plans to go beyond Mars? Is the plan to establish cargo flights to Mars still central to the whole endeavour? Does the name change from Mars Cargo Transporter (MCT) to Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) signal a change in focus? These questions may be answered soon, on September 27th, when Musk will speak at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Musk hinted back in January that he would be revealing some major details of the MCT at the IAC later this month. In January, he said at the StartmeupHK Festival in Hong Kong that “I’m hoping to describe that architecture later this year at IAC … and I think that will be quite exciting.”
So, lots of hints. And these hints bring questions. Is SpaceX developing a super heavy rocket of some type? A BFR? If the Mars Colonial Transport system can go much further than Mars, maybe to the moons of the gas giants, won’t that require a much larger rocket than the Falcon Heavy?
In the past, SpaceX has conceptualized about larger rockets and the engines that would power them. At the 2010 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Joint Propulsion Conference, SpaceX presented some of these conceptual designs. They featured a super-heavy lift vehicle larger than the Falcon Heavy, dubbed the Falcon X. Beyond that, and in increasingly powerful designs, were the Falcon X Heavy, and the Falcon XX Heavy.
These were only concepts, but it’s six years later now. Surely, any further thinking around a super-heavy lift vehicle would have started there. And if the MCT can now go well beyond Mars, as Musk said in his Tweet, there must be a more powerful rocket. Mustn’t there?
So with one tweet, Musk has sucked the air out of the room, and got everybody speculating. But Musk isn’t the only one with eyes on building a greater human presence in space. He has a competitor: Jeff Bezos, former Amazon CEO, and his company Blue Origin.
The original space race pitted the USA against the USSR in a battle for scientific supremacy and prestige. The USA won that race, and they’re still reaping the benefits of that technological victory. But a new race might be brewing between Musk and Bezos, between SpaceX and Blue Origin.
The two companies haven’t been directly competing. They’ve both been working on reusable rockets, but Blue Origin has concerned itself with sub-orbital rocketry designed to take people into space for a few minutes. Space tourism, if you will. SpaceX’s focus has always been on orbital capability, and more.
But not to be outdone by SpaceX, Blue Origin has recently announced the New Glenn orbital launch vehicle, to be powered by seven of their new, powerful, BE-4 engines.
There’s definitely some one-upmanship going on between Musk and Bezos. So far, it’s mostly been civil, with each acknowledging each other’s achievements and milestones in rocketry. But they’re also both quick to point out why they’re better than the other.
Bezos, with the announcement of the New Glenn orbital launch vehicle, and the BE-4 engines that will power it, took every opportunity to mention the fact that his company spends zero tax dollars, while SpaceX benefits from financial arrangements with NASA. Musk, on the other hand, likes to point out the fact that Blue Origin has never delivered anything into orbit, while SpaceX has delivered numerous payloads into orbit successfully.
But for now, anyway, the focus is on SpaceX, and what Musk will reveal at the upcoming IAC Congress. If he reveals a solid plan for recurring cargo missions to Mars, the excitement will be palpable. And if he reveals plans to go further than Mars, with much larger rockets, we may never catch our breaths.