- Space X is testing the concepts and ideas behind its next big rocket, StarShip, in Texas.
- The multibillion-dollar project includes a prototype rocket called the Starhopper to test the enormous new rapper engines that will be propelling future spacecraft.
- With the StarShip, Elon Musk’s company plans to send people around the moon and to the mars surface within the next ten years.
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is working on a multibillion-dollar rocket called the "Starship" that could one day take people to the moon, Mars, and launch thousands of satellites into orbit. Tech Insider Senior Correspondent Dave Mosher explains everything we know so far about the project.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Dave: This spring, SpaceX launched a squat, kind of ugly looking, but shiny little rocket, and it’s called the Starhopper. And this is the very beginning, the first physical representation of the entire future of the company. This is the rocket that SpaceX is staking its future on.
The core reason that SpaceX is doing this is because of a dream that Elon Musk shared back in the early 2000s at the founding of SpaceX. He wanted to send a little plant to Mars and have it grow there to inspire people about space travel. He thinks we need to back up the human race to Mars, start a colony there, an Earth 2.0, and this Starship is key to all of that.
He wants to use it to transport 100 people and 150 tons of cargo to the red planet at a time, and he thinks by 2050, we can build a sustainable colony on Mars. So SpaceX is testing the concepts and the engines behind this Starship in south Texas, and they’re starting to get this little tiny version of it called the Starhopper hopping off the ground to prove that the engines and the whole concept works.
Basically, the idea is will this thing blow up or not? And so far it hasn’t blown up. We were down there for the very first hop of this vehicle, and it was one of the loudest things I’ve ever heard, but it did not blow up. And since then, SpaceX has done another hop, and they’re gonna take these hops of this vehicle higher and higher to about 3 miles up. The engines that SpaceX is using are brand new. They’re called Raptor engines. These things are enormous. They’re about the size of a small delivery truck in which a controlled bomb goes off, basically.
After these hop tests are done and SpaceX proves that the system won’t explode on a whim, they’re gonna put these Raptor engines on an even bigger vehicle, which Musk has called the orbital version, and that’s gonna go into orbit around Earth. And the key thing with that test is not only showing that it can get into orbit but that it can come back.
When a spacecraft comes back to Earth, it’s entering the atmosphere at some point at 25 times the speed of sound. That plows through the atmosphere and builds up all this gas into superheated levels that can vaporize steel. So SpaceX needs to prove that this vehicle will not destroy itself when it comes back to Earth because if it does, then they can’t safely launch people on it. That’s what you need a shield for. You need to protect the vehicle from burning itself up when it either comes back to Earth or is entering the very thin atmosphere of Mars.
There are a few critiques of steel, and one of them is that it’s just so heavy. It’s dense. If you try to use too much of it, your spacecraft gets bogged down, and you can’t launch as much payload into space. So you have to be really creative about how you build your spacecraft. SpaceX is getting around this problem by trying to go after a fuel-tank structure, the internal structure, these little ribs and slats and things to support the larger structure so that it doesn’t fall in on itself. That way they can make the metal really thin but also take advantage of its cheapness and also strength.
This vehicle isn’t using what SpaceX has typically used for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets: That’s RP-1. It’s a form of kerosene. It’s similar to the stuff that goes into jets. It smells like jet fuel. They also use liquid oxygen. The new Starship, and specifically the Starhopper, which just launched, is using liquid methane and liquid oxygen. Methane is important because SpaceX wants to be able to manufacture its fuel on another planet, and specifically Mars, and they can do that, in theory, with the thin atmosphere that Mars has. They can take the carbon dioxide, they can take water out of the ground, and they can take sunlight and use energy to combine those two and form methane on the surface of Mars, refuel Starship, and go back home to Earth.
The first things that SpaceX hopes to do with a full-scale, fully operational Starship is to show that it works. They want to get this thing into orbit, and then following that, they want to start sending the first missions to Mars. These would be robots, equipment to help scout out the surface and also set up a plant to generate methane and oxygen to fuel a future mission to come back to Earth. The first crude mission, though, is going to be with a Japanese artist and fashion billionaire called Yusaku Maezawa.
He is going to load up one of these Starships with a crew full of artists and maybe a couple astronauts just for safety and go around the moon to show that the system works. He’s willing to put his life on the line for that, and Musk has even teased that he might go himself. Right now, SpaceX is targeting 2023 or thereabouts to launch this crude moon mission. But by 2024, the company wants to take advantage of a planetary alignment, which happens once every two years with Mars and Earth, to sort of close the gap between the planets and launch the first crude mission to Mars, land there, and put boots on the ground.
There’s another really important use for this vehicle. They’re gonna try to launch 12,000 satellites. That is twice as many as are currently in space right now, and I think three or four times as many as are currently operational, to build up a global network of satellite high-speed, low-latency internet, so many times faster than you could get today from a commercial provider. But to do that, they’re gonna need to launch a ton of these Starlink satellites at once, and Starship could be the vehicle because it’s so big and fully reusable to do that at low cost for SpaceX. We can’t think of Starship just as a rocket to launch people to Mars.
It is going to be the future rocket for SpaceX and possibly the world. It’ll launch the next generation of satellite internet. It could launch people to Mars, of course. It could also launch next-generation telescopes, and it could also launch NASA astronauts to the moon, as well as landing craft and any number of things that people want to get up that are big, and they want to do it cheaply.
If SpaceX can get government support, perhaps from NASA or the Department of Defense, to develop Starship, it’s gonna go a long way into helping SpaceX get to the point where this system becomes a reality because right now they’re relying on a Japanese billionaire and some of their own venture capital funding to fund this entire development project, which they estimate to be between $2 and $10 billion to complete. Some critics say, however, that $10 billion is even a low limit. It may cost as much as $20 billion to develop this system. So if SpaceX can get outside support, it can get government funding, it’s gonna help make this thing a reality.
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