SpaceX Tests the Starship’s Hexagonal Heatshield. Starhopper Tests Could Come as Early as This Week

A December 2019 photo showing the nosecone (left) and the tank section (right). Image Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

The milestones just keep coming for SpaceX. After the recent successful test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule, another of SpaceX’s ventures is about to meet its own milestone. The SpaceX Starhopper could have its first test flight as soon as this week.

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Gateway Foundation Shows off Their Plans for an Enormous Rotating Space Station

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.

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New SpaceX Raptor Engine Beats the Chamber Pressure of Russia’s RD-180 Engine, According to Elon Musk

2019 has been shaping up to be an interesting year for SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk. After completing work on the miniaturized version of the Starship (Starship Alpha or “Starship hopper”) over the holidays, SpaceX moved ahead with the test-firing of its new Raptor engine in late January/early February. In accordance with Musk’s vision, these engines will give the Starship the necessary thrust to reach the Moon and Mars.

The test-firing took place at SpaceX’s Rocket Development and Test Facility, located just outside of McGregor, Texas. As Musk recently tweeted, the tests went very well, achieving the thrust necessary for both the Starship and its first-stage booster, the Super-Heavy. Musk also claimed that the engine broke the previous record for combustion chamber pressure, which was established by the Russian RD-180.

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Elon Musk’s New Plan is to Get to the Moon as Fast as Possible

For Elon Musk and SpaceX, the company he founded to reignite space exploration, a great deal hinges on the creation of the Starship. This super-heavy launch vehicle, which was has evolved considerably in the past few years, will eventually replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy as the mainstay of the SpaceX fleet. Once operational, it will also facilitate missions to the Moon and eventually Mars.

Once again, Elon Musk has used his social media platform of choice to share the latest details about the Starship‘s progress. As he shared in a series of tweets, which began on Thursday, Jan. 31st, the company has commenced test-firing the Raptor engine at their Rocket Development and Test Facility in McGregor, Texas, and is pushing towards the Starship’s first mission.

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The Prototype for the Starship has been Assembled, Hop Tests Could be Happening Soon

The prototype Starship. Image: SpaceX

In an announcement sure to make you quiver with delight, Elon Musk says that SpaceX could begin short-hop test flights of its Starship prototype as early as next Spring. The Starship, which looks like something from a 1950’s sci-fi novel cover (awesome!) is intended to carry people to the Moon and Mars. When the spacecraft design was originally announced in 2016, it was called the Mars Colonial Transporter, and it sent shockwaves through the community.

Now, it’s almost test-flight time.

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The SpaceX Starhopper has Three Raptor Engines on the Bottom

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.

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Prototype Version of the SpaceX Starship with a Stainless Steel Skin is Under Construction

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.

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Name Change Alert! SpaceX’s BFR is Now Just Called “Starship”

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“.

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How Would Earth Send Messages To A Starship — Or A Distant Civilization?

I have a new exercise routine where I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation most mornings of the week while doing my thing. Besides serving as awesome distraction, the episodes do get me thinking about how humans would talk to extraterrestrials. It likely wouldn’t be as easy as the show portrays to zoom across space to conduct diplomatic negotiations at the planet “Parliament”, for example, so interstellar communication would be a problem.

Luckily for non-engineers such as me, there are folks out there (on Earth, at least) that are examining the problem of talking between stars. David Messerschmitt, of the University of California at Berkeley, is one of those people. A new paper by him on Arxiv examines the issue. Note this is a preprint site and not a peer-reviewed journal, but all the same it provides an intriguing addition to how to communicate outside of Earth.

Messerschmitt explains that humans already communicate with probes that are a fair distance from Earth (say, Voyager 1 in interstellar space) at radio frequencies, and there is some usage now of laser/optical communications (namely between the Earth and the moon).

Across greater distances, however, you lose information, the interstellar medium gets in the way, and stars shift due to relative motion. Besides all that, at first you wouldn’t know how the other civilization designs its systems and you could therefore send a message that wouldn’t be picked up.

This sequence of images, showing a region where fewer stars are forming near the constellation of Perseus, illustrates how the structure and distribution of the interstellar medium can be distilled from the images obtained with Planck. Credit: ESA / HFI and LFI Consortia
This sequence of images, showing a region where fewer stars are forming near the constellation of Perseus, illustrates how the structure and distribution of the interstellar medium can be distilled from the images obtained with Planck. Credit: ESA / HFI and LFI Consortia

He further explains that starships and civilizations would have different communications requirements. Starship communication would be two-way and based on a similar design, so success comes by having high “uplink and downlink transmit times”. The more information, the better it would be for scientific observations and keeping down errors.

Civilization-to-civilization chats, however, would present headaches. As with all diplomatic negotiations, crafting suitable messages would take time. Then we’d have to send the message out repeatedly to make sure it is heard (which actually means that reliability is not as big of a problem.) Then the ISM would have to be contended with (something that pulsar astronomers and astrophysicists are already working on, he said).

In either case — talking to starships or other civilizations — one can assume there’d be a lot of energy involved, he added. “Starships are likely to be much closer than the nearest civilizations, but the cost of either a large transmit antenna or transmit energy is likely to be considerably greater for the starship than for a terrestrial-based transmitter,” he said, suggesting that a solution would be to minimize the energy delivered to the receiver. Other civilizations may have found more efficient ways to overcome this problem, he added.

You can read more details of the research on Arxiv, where Messerschmitt talks about Gaussian noise, channel coding and other parameters to keep in mind during communication.