Orbital Launch in January? Elon Musk Updates His Vision for SpaceX’s Starship

Starlink launch from Mars

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has laid out a scenario for space travel that calls for his company’s Starship launch system to take on its first orbital test flight as soon as January.

Starship could go through “a dozen launches next year, maybe more,” and be ready to send valuable payloads to the moon, Mars and even the solar system’s outer planets by 2023, Musk said during a Nov. 17 online meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy.

But he advised against sending anything too valuable on the first flight to Mars. “I would recommend putting the lower-cost scientific mission stuff on the first mission,” he said, half-jokingly.

The National Academies presentation followed up on big-picture talks that Musk delivered in 2016 (when Starship was known as the Interplanetary Transport System), 2017 (when it was known as the BFR or “Big Frickin’ Rocket”) and 2018 (when Musk settled on “Starship”).

Musk’s basic concept is the same: Starship and its giant Super Heavy booster would be a one-size-fits-all system that could be used for point-to-point suborbital travel, orbital space missions and all manner of trips beyond Earth orbit, including moon landings. It’d be capable of lofting more than 100 tons to low Earth orbit (three times as much as the space shuttle), and sending 100 people at a time to Mars.

This week’s presentation provided some new details.

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New Idea: Use the Starship HLS to Create a Lunar Base!

Between the multiple space agencies planning to conduct crewed missions to the lunar surface, the many commercial entities who’ve contracted them to assist them, and proposals for lunar bases, the message of the modern space age is clear: We’re going back to the Moon. And this time, we intend to stay! Just like the efforts of the Apollo Era, this entails several challenges, ones that require “the best of our energies and skills.”

These challenges are leading to all sorts of innovative solutions, which recognize the need to leverage lunar resources to provide protection against the environment and see to peoples’ needs. A new proposal made by a team from the International Space University (ISU) has found a novel way to do just that. Their proposal? Use the SpaceX Starship Human Landing System (HLS) as the foundation for a lunar base.

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“Mechazilla” is Getting its Arms. Now it can Catch Starships!

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of activity at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Launch Complex! In addition to the SN 20 prototype completing a static fire test with three of the new Raptor Vacuum 6 engines this month, the facility’s “Mechazilla” Launch Tower recently received a giant pair of steel arms. Once integrated with the ~135m (~450 ft) tower, these arms will be responsible for “catching” spent Starships and Super Heavy boosters as they return to Earth.

The Tower will also prepare missions by stacking first stage boosters with Starships and refueling these elements for the next launch. In this respect, the Launch Tower is a crucial piece of the Orbital Launch Site (OLS) architecture that Elon Musk has planned for Boca Chica. Once the Starship completes its Orbital Flight Test (which could happen soon!), Boca Chica will become a spaceflight hub where launches and retrievals are conducted regularly.

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A Human Mission to Mars Should Last a Maximum of 4 Years

At one time, the idea of sending humans to Mars either seemed like a distant prospect or something out of science fiction. But with multiple space agencies and even commercial space companies planning to mount missions in the coming decade, the day when humans will go to Mars is fast approaching the point of realization. Before this can happen, several issues need to be resolved first, including a myriad of technical and human factors.

In any discussion about crewed missions to Mars, there are recurring questions about whether or not we can mitigate the threat of radiation. In a new study, an international team of space scientists addressed the question of whether particle radiation would be too great a threat and if radiation could be mitigating through careful timing. In the end, they found that a mission to Mars is doable but that it could not exceed a duration of four years.

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Musk Confirms how “Mechazilla” Will Catch and Assemble Starship and Super Heavy for Rapid Reuse

In January of 2021, Elon Musk announced SpaceX’s latest plan to increase the number of flights they can mount by drastically reducing turnaround time. The key to this was a new launch tower that would “catch” first stage boosters after they return to Earth. This would forego the need to install landing legs on future Super Heavy boosters and potentially future Starship returning to Earth.

Musk shared this idea in response to a Tweet made by an animator who goes by the Twitter handle Erc X, who asked if his latest render (of a Starship landing next to its launch tower) was accurate. As usual, Musk responded via Twitter, saying:

“We’re going to try to catch the Super Heavy Booster with the launch tower arm, using the grid fins to take the load… Saves mass & cost of legs & enables immediate repositioning of booster on to launch mount—ready to refly in under an hour.”

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Starship is Stacked on the Super Heavy Booster. The Tallest Rocket Ever Built

Once again, things are gearing up at SpaceX’s South Texas Launch Facility, located just outside the village of Boca Chica, Texas. In recent weeks, the aerospace community has been abuzz about the rollout and Static Fire test of the Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) prototype. This was the first time a booster was tested, which will be responsible for launching the Starship to space in the near future. Since then, things have only ramped up some more.

First, there was the announcement on Aug. 2nd that the fourth Super Heavy prototype (the BN4) received a full complement of 29 Raptor engines and grid fins. This was followed on Aug. 3rd with news that BN4 was being moved to the launch pad and that the SN20 Starship prototype received a full six Raptor engines. On Aug. 6th, the denouement came with the stacking of both prototypes together, which resulted in the tallest rocket in the history of spaceflight!

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Elon Musks Says that his Next Starship Could be Twice as Big

The past week has been pretty eventful for SpaceX. On Tuesday (Aug. 27th) at 05:00 PM local time (03:00 PST; 06:00 EST), the company conducted its second free-flight test of the Starship Hopper, which saw the test vehicle successfully ascend to 150 m (~500 ft) above the ground and then land in a different spot. This test brings SpaceX one step closer to orbital tests with their full-scale prototypes of the Starship.

But it was what came shortly after this successful test that has people buzzing right now. On Twitter, as Musk was sharing drone footage of the test, he mused about how big SpaceX’s next super-heavy launch system would be. According to Musk, the next-generation system (Starship 2.0, if you will) will be twice as large as the vehicle that is poised to send humans and cargo to the Moon and to Mars.

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