SpaceX founder Elon Musk detailed the progress of the company’s next-generation Starship program on Monday, saying that the massive rocket could “likely” attempt to launch for the first time into Earth orbit next year, adding that the spacecraft will fly hundreds of missions before SpaceX puts people on In – the board.
Tapping into a growing production complex in South Texas, SpaceX is building new prototypes for the Starship at the rate of multiple vehicles per month. Some prototypes are strictly intended for ground testing, but SpaceX’s next Starship test, designed SN6, could attempt a 500-foot (150 meters) jump test later this week.
The Starship’s newest test vehicle, called SN5, was the first spacecraft to have full-size propellant tanks for successful launch and landing. During the SN5 brief up and down test on August 4, the prototype flew 500 feet powered by a single methane-fueled Raptor engine, then made a controlled landing to a nearby landing platform.
Speaking on the phone Monday at the Humans to Mars Virtual Summit, Musk is “making good progress” on Starship. He emphasized SpaceX’s achievements in increasing the production of Starship test compounds – made of stainless steel – at the Boca Chica development and testing facility near Brownsville, Texas.
“The main thing we need to make progress in the Starship is the production system,” Musk said, adding that making a prototype was “relatively easy” by comparison.
Several hulls, tall assembly buildings and launch infrastructure elements have appeared in Boca Chica over the past year. SpaceX has assembled the Starship’s first outdoor prototype, using outdoor welding, but teams are moving production to indoor, climate-controlled facilities.
Several prototypes of the Starship have been destroyed during ground testing since SpaceX built the first Starship test vehicle last year. But SpaceX collected important data during those tests, allowing engineers to update design specifications and improve the Starship’s design.
“Building the production system so that we can finally build hundreds or thousands of Starships – that’s the hard part,” Musk said Monday. “But we’re making good progress in the production system as people can see from aerial photos of Boca Chica.
“A year ago, there was almost nothing, and now we have a lot of production capacity,” Musk added. “We are rapidly making more and more ships, and we will start producing the booster soon.”
Musk said SpaceX plans to start production of the first prototype of the first phase of the enhanced Starship Starship – called Super Heavy – later this week.
– RGVAerialPhotography (RGVaerialphotos) September 1, 2020
Starship is the focus of the vision of Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, who founded the company with the mission of sending people to Mars. Musk says future Starships could sail to Mars with up to 100 people.
SpaceX plans to fly spacecraft test vehicles and Super Heavy models to jumps to higher altitudes before attempting an orbital launch. Musk said that like early test flights in the spacecraft, the first Super Heavy prototypes would fly to low altitudes using a subset of the Raptor engines, starting with two SpaceX power plants.
The spacecraft experiments at high altitudes will require SpaceX to install an aerodynamic nose cone on future spacecraft vehicles, along with fins and other aerial surfaces. High altitude spacecraft flights will also need three Raptor engines, before SpaceX finally switches to the Starship’s six-engine configuration for orbital missions, which will also require a heat shield to re-enter.
With the addition of the nose cone, the Starship will reach a height of about 164 feet, or 50 meters. The vehicle is about 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, which is about one and a half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 Jumbo.
For orbital missions, the Starship will fly as a top stage over the formidable Super Heavy first stage booster. In conjunction with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire group will stand 394 feet (120 meters) long, according to the SpaceX website.
Both stages will return to Earth for thrust landings, like the first stage in SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket. This will make the Super Heavy and Starship completely reusable.
SpaceX says the Starship operational vehicle can transport more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo into low Earth orbit, more than any missile since NASA’s Apollo Saturn 5 launcher.
Musk said Monday that engineers have modified the Super Heavy’s booster design by increasing the thrust of the Raptor engines, allowing SpaceX to remove many Raptors from the design. It’s the latest in a series of design modifications made since Musk unveiled the giant missile program in 2016, when it was dubbed “BFR”.
Musk previously said the Super Heavy booster will have more than 30 methane-fueled Raptor engines, but Musk said Monday that SpaceX is trying to “streamline configuration.”
“There could be 28 engines,” Musk said. “There are still a lot of engines. We’ll also end up increasing the thrust on the engines.”
The engines’ outer ring will have a Super Heavy booster with fixed nozzles, while an internal set of eight Raptors will direct their power to guide the missile during takeoff and landing.
Over time, each of the exterior row of engines could generate about 300 tons, or about 600,000 pounds of thrust, according to Musk. The eight inboard engines will produce about 210 tons or 420,000 pounds of thrust. That would give the Super Heavy over 15 million pounds of total thrust on takeoff.
SpaceX is eyeing giant floating platforms for Super Heavy and Starship launches, but test flights in the near term will be based in Boca Chica. SpaceX suspended Starship development work at locations on Florida’s Space Coast last year.
When asked on Monday when SpaceX might launch its first spacecraft and re-enter it, Musk replied: “It is likely next year.”
“I hope we do a lot of flights,” Musk said. “The early ones may not work. This is uncharted territory. Nobody has ever made a fully reusable orbiting missile. So just getting that at all is very important.”
And SpaceX never gets small with the Starship. It’s about the same size as NASA’s Saturn 5 moon rocket, but has more efficient engines. SpaceX also aims to eventually refuel the spacecraft in Earth orbit, allowing it to launch missions to the moon, Mars, and other destinations with a full load of fuel.
“This is the gateway to the galaxy, or at least the solar system,” Musk said.
The billionaire businessman said last year that the Starship’s first orbital launch could happen in 2020. Despite the project’s rapid rate of progress, SpaceX will not meet that schedule.
Musk said Monday that SpaceX isn’t developing much of the life support systems Starships will need to accommodate people.
“We have to automate the thing – connect the satellites,” Musk said, “and do hundreds of tasks to connect the satellites before we put people on board.” “We know how to create a complex life support system that can handle large-scale environments, alter atmospheric pressure, and alter the proportion of oxygen and nitrogen in the air.”
SpaceX’s human-ranked Crew Dragon spaceship has been developed in partnership with NASA, astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time, demonstrating the capsule’s life support systems and the design of SpaceX’s first space suit. The suits worn by dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were designed to protect crew members in the event that the capsule pressure drops during flight.
“In short, we know how to do it,” Musk said. “For a longer mission, like if you’re going to Mars, you want to have a more renewable system than we have in Crew Dragon. You want to recycle things, recycle a lot more water, and more oxygen. But if you’re going to the moon, no problem.”
SpaceX’s long-range roadmap includes the ability to refuel in orbit to make trips to the moon possible. NASA has chosen SpaceX’s Starship In May as one of three competitors – along with Blue Origin and Dynetics – for a human-rated moon lander, the space agency will fund manned lunar missions later in the decade.
As part of the planned structure of NASA’s Artemis lunar landing program, astronauts will launch from Earth on top of the government-owned Space Launch System’s heavy lift rocket and crew’s Orion capsule. The separately rated human-rated probe will launch a commercial rocket, then fly to the moon and wait for docking with the Orion crew in lunar orbit.
The astronauts will float in the Lunar Lander and descend to the surface of the Moon, conduct experiments and spacewalks, and then set off to return to the Orion capsule, which will return the crew to Earth.
NASA’s lunar probe contract with SpaceX is initially valued at $ 135 million, but could grow if the spacecraft wins NASA’s competition against Blue Origin and Dynetics. $ 135 million would cover only a small percentage of the Starship’s total development cost, which Musk estimated at more than $ 5 billion.
“NASA’s support is appreciated, but this is a program that has ended, and maybe more than $ 5 billion,” Musk said Monday. “It’s useful, but it doesn’t change the rules of the game. But hopefully, if we show success with the Starship, they can start thinking seriously about a Moon base.”
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