SUPER HEAVY STARSHIP
SpaceX’s Super Heavy Starship (or simply Starship) is a fully reusable, two-stage launch-to-orbit transportation system capable of carrying humans to the Moon, Mars and far beyond. Once launched, it will be the largest and most powerful rocket in history.
Standing 394 feet (120 metres) tall, the extraordinary rocket system comprises a 230-foot-tall first stage Super Heavy booster and a 164-foot-tall second stage Starship spacecraft.
Starship will be the tallest launch vehicle in the world, much taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty. And it will grow by at least 5 to 10 meters over time.
Starship’s body diameter measures 30 feet (9 metres), which is much larger than that of Airbus 380 or Boeing 747.
SpaceX’s Starship rocket has more than twice the mass and thrust of NASA’s Saturn V, the rocket that launched humanity to the Moon. It will carry more than 150 metric tonnes (150,000 kg) of cargo or 100 people per launch, the highest payload capacity of all the rockets in history.
Due to its full reusability, Starship will also be the cheapest rocket in terms of marginal cost. The estimated cost of its development is very low, between 5% – 10% of the Saturn V.
Above all, Starship is environmentally-friendly.
Except for SpaceX rockets, all other rockets of the world, including Saturn V and NASA’s new rocket, Space Launch System (SLS), are expendable i.e. one-time use rockets discarded in space after launch.
Super Heavy Starship has been developed to fulfill SpaceX Founder CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars and making humanity a multi-planetary species so as to protect the future of the human race and help humanity reach its full potential.
Video: Starship Animation
Mars colonization and other ambitious exploration feats can be economically feasible only with massive, fully and rapidly reusable orbital rockets.
For most in the space industry, the concept of the gigantic Super Heavy Starship system was either unimaginable or science fiction. But Elon Musk’s SpaceX went on to prove them wrong…
Today, there’s nothing in the world that can rival Super Heavy Starship’s capabilities as a fully and rapidly reusable launch vehicle. Starship is the key to humanity’s future in space exploration, whether in our Solar System…
Or far beyond it…
In addition to space exploration, Super Heavy Starship will carry out satellite launches, deliver cargo and crew missions to the ISS, provide space tourism and much more.
On Earth, Super Heavy Starship (or simply “Starship”) can enable ballistic transportation of passengers from one place to another as a substitute to long-haul airline flights, but at insanely fast speeds that only Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) can achieve.
Starship can facilitate point-to-point flights (termed “Earth to Earth” by SpaceX) transporting passengers and cargo between spaceports on Earth.
This novel concept has interested even the U.S. military who are keen on using a heavy rocket to deliver military cargo and humanitarian aid anywhere around the world for emergencies and disaster relief. For that reason, the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) recently contracted SpaceX for a full-up demonstration of heavy cargo transport and landing.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft.
The world’s leading space company has completely revolutionized the spaceflight industry and created history several times with its reusable medium-lift Falcon 9 and heavy-lift Falcon Heavy rockets and Dragon spacecraft.
And now, it is fully geared up to unleash the power of its fully reusable super heavy-lift Super Heavy Starship, which once operational will be the world’s most powerful rocket with the highest payload capacity of any orbital rocket ever built…
Besides rockets, SpaceX’s Cargo and Crew Dragon have achieved historic milestones in spaceflight for the United States since 2012 and 2020 respectively, which have encouraged space enthusiasts all over the world to dream of realizing interplanetary human spaceflight.
And now, SpaceX has developed an extraordinary fully-reusable spacecraft to accomplish this very dream. To usher in a new era of human space exploration by returning humans to Moon. And then, to send them to Mars and even far beyond.
Elon Musk had been working on the concept of a fully reusable, super heavy-lift launch system for low-cost interplanetary spaceflight for a long time before he publicly announced it in 2005. As the concept matured, there were frequent changes in design and name for the “world’s most powerful rocket having the highest payload capacity of any orbital rocket ever built”.
Elon Musk originally named the futuristic system the “Interplanetary Transport System”, and later, the “Big Falcon Rocket”. He incorporated a few changes in the Starship design over the last few years, rolling out different specifications in 2016, 2017 and 2018, ultimately settling on a design in 2019. That final design is the current version of Starship and Super Heavy. And there will be customized Starship variants too.
Starship incorporates the time-tested Falcon 9 Vertical Take-Off, Vertical Landing (VTVL) technology for reusability, to make low-cost rockets. Once operational, it will become the primary orbital vehicle, replacing the existing Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon fleet.
The gigantic Super Heavy Starship is crucial to SpaceX’s ambitions of colonizing Mars and fulfilling Elon Musk’s dream of making humanity multi-planetary.
Elon Musk has said that although Starship is many times larger and expected to have a multibillion-dollar development cost, it will be far less expensive per launch.
“I’m highly confident it would be less than $10 million.”
The cost efficiency capability is gauged by the amount of mass launched to orbit at a time while fully reusing each rocket and booster like a commercial airline.
STARSHIP ORBITAL LAUNCH INTEGRATION TOWER (OLIT)
Each Starship launch site will have two gigantic robotic Orbital Launch Integration Towers (OLIT) equipped with three mechanical swinging arms and black cladding.
Standing alongside the tower is the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM), where the two vehicles will be stacked, and launched to orbit.
Assembled using nine prefabricated sections of heavy-duty bolted in steel, the roughly 469 feet (143 metres) tall robotic tower is topped by a 10-foot lightning rod.
The gigantic tower is designed to integrate the Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft, and support orbital launches of the integrated system.
Watch this video to go up SpaceX’s Starship-catching robotic launch tower at Starbase, Texas with Elon Musk:
Elon Musk named the metallic launch & catch tower with a claw-like look “Mechazilla” after the “Mechagodzilla” character from the “Godzilla” film franchise.
Mechazilla’s three major components are the carriage-like structure, the Quick Disconnect (QD) arm, and a pair of giant arms “Chopsticks”.
The Quick Disconnect arm will do the following:
Hold and stabilize Starship above the Super Heavy rocket booster stacked on the launch mount.
Load fuel, oxidizer, and other consumers onto Starship just before the launch.
And connect Starship to power, networking, and ground support equipment.
Chopsticks will lift the Super Heavy and Starship, stack them onto each other with precision and catch the returning booster and ship mid-air at the end of their mission. It will stack them again for another launch.
The red circled area shows one of the two pins of Super Heavy to which Chopsticks will attach for lifting and catching…
Mechazilla integrates the Super Heavy-Starship launch system vertically on the launch pad…
First, Super Heavy is mated to the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM)…
And then, Starship is mated to Super Heavy…
Super Heavy booster will be the largest flying object ever designed, to be caught out of sky. The mid-air catch by the giant arms “Chopsticks” of “Mechazilla” will eliminate the need for the returning Super Heavy and Starship to have landing legs. But there will be emergency landing mode on the “skirt” of the vehicle base.
Landing legs will be required for Moon and Mars until local infrastructure is built.
Catching the returning vehicles requires great precision, but it enables immediate repositioning of the booster onto the launch mount for another flight within an hour. It reduces the turnaround time after landing and enables more frequent launches.
STARSHIP LAUNCH & LANDING
Animation video of Starship Launch & Landing:
Before launch, the Super Heavy rocket and Starship spacecraft are stacked onto the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) and loaded with propellant.
At the time of lift-off, Super Heavy fires its 33 Raptor engines, launching the gigantic heavy-duty system to space.
While Super Heavy and Starship are attached in space, the booster will move its engines and rotate the rocket. Because of the conservation of angular momentum, when the latches are released, the booster separates from the spacecraft.
After separation, the booster flips its orientation and starts its descent phase and atmospheric re-entry, maintaining control and movement through its four aerodynamic grid fins. Meanwhile, the Starship spacecraft fires its 3 Raptor Vacuum engines and inserts itself into orbit.
The booster fires its centre engine cluster returning to the launch site, where it is caught mid-air by “Chopsticks”, arresting any remaining velocity and repositioning the booster onto the OLM, allowing another launch cycle to begin.
Towards the end of its mission, the Starship spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere, glides toward the landing site, and makes a soft touchdown.
Both Super Heavy and Starship will have SpaceX’s specially designed hot gas thrusters (or small engines) powered by “methox” (gaseous methane and gaseous oxygen) to control the vehicles’ orientation during the atmospheric re-entry and descent phase.
SUPER HEAVY STARSHIP ENGINES – THE RAPTORS
Rocket engine development is one of the longest sub-processes in the design of new rockets. More so when it is a new, gigantic fully-reusable rocket.
For its Super Heavy Starship (SHS) launch system, SpaceX has developed and manufactured Raptors, a family of full-flow, closed-cycle, staged-combustion rocket engines, which use “methalox” i.e. cryogenic liquid methane (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX), to power its first and second stages.
The first stage Super Heavy booster will have 33 sea level-optimized Raptor-2 engines…
And the second stage Starship will have 3 sea level-optimized Raptor-2 engines and 3 Raptor vacuum engines…
Raptors are propellant-based, 78% liquid oxygen (propellant) and 22% liquid methane (fuel).
The full-flow, staged-combustion cycle is a very complex and very expensive cycle of engines. So complex that only three entities in the world have ever attempted to build them, and only one among the three has been successful at flying them. The other two never made it past the test stand, they never flew.
The first attempt to build was made by the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1960s. It was the RD-270 engine, which was test-fired several times.
The second was just the power pack of a full flow engine called the Integrated Power Head Demonstrator developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne for the US Air Force in the 1990s and early 2000s. It only underwent test-fires, the full engine design was never completed.
The third and final attempt to develop and manufacture full-flow, staged-combustion rocket engine was made by SpaceX.
Raptor is the first and only full-flow, staged-combustion engine to fly and successfully lift a rocket. It first flew in July 2019.
A full-flow, staged-combustion rocket engine uses a twin-shaft, staged-combustion cycle with a series of turbo pumps, compressors, and turbines to generate thrust.
Fuel is burned in stages, in two different combustion chambers – the pre-burner and main combustion chamber. Hence this cycle is called staged-combustion.
This rocket engine has two pre-burners, oxidizer-rich and fuel-rich. Most of the oxidizer (liquid oxygen) is passed through the oxidizer-rich pre-burner, while the remaining small part goes into the fuel-rich pre-burner. Similarly, most of the fuel (liquid methane) is passed through the fuel-rich pre-burner, but the chilled methane passes through the nozzle first. The remaining small part goes into the oxidizer-rich pre-burner.
Pre-burner is a small combustion chamber where a certain percentage of the oxidizer and fuel are mixed. The high pressure fuel-rich and oxygen-rich gases generated within the pre-burners spin the turbines, which drive turbo pumps, which push fuel-rich and oxygen-rich gases into the main combustion chamber.
In an open-cycle engine, the exhaust is thrown out. In a closed-cycle engine, the exhaust is re-used.
SpaceX is developing gaseous methane-oxygen thrusters that will utilize the exhaust to control the vehicles’ orientation during the atmospheric re-entry and descent phase instead of being vented.
In closed-cycle engine, the resulting exhaust from pre-burners is re-used for introduction into the main combustion chamber to extract a bit more thrust out of it. This way, all the leftover fuel or oxidizer in the pre-burners is burnt along with the rest of the fuel in the main combustion chamber. Thus, a full-flow, closed-cycle, staged-combustion cycle enables maximum engine efficiency with maximum utilization of fuel and oxidizer as the entire input of the two goes through the main combustion chamber, thereby increasing the amount of thrust produced by the rocket.
The fuel-rich and oxygen-rich gases mix and burn in the main combustion chamber producing tremendous amounts of exhaust gas at high temperature and pressure. The chamber leads to the nozzle through which the hot exhaust passes. The nozzle expands and accelerates the flow at high velocity. The ejection of the resulting high pressure gas from the nozzle propels the rocket into the air.
Raptor is built using different metals from Inconel alloys to SpaceX’s own SX500 alloy. SpaceX’s metallurgy team developed the SX500 super alloy for 12000 psi (pounds per square inch) hot oxygen-rich gas.
Raptor is the first rocket engine to run on methane. Most rocket engines use either rocket-grade kerosene (or RP-1) or hydrogen as fuel. SpaceX’s Merlin engines used on Falcon rockets are powered by RP-1.
SpaceX chose methane for its Raptors because it is very low-cost and easy to handle, does not accumulate soot and above all, it can be easily produced on Mars using the planet’s natural resources.
The Sabatier reaction can be used to create liquid methane and liquid oxygen on Mars in a power-to-gas plant, to refuel Starships for return missions. The reaction works by exposing carbon dioxide and hydrogen to a catalyst at temperatures above 375 °C (700 °F) at high pressure. Carbon dioxide can be obtained from Mar’s atmosphere and hydrogen from its sub-surface water ice, while the catalyst used may be nickel or ruthenium.
Raptor-2 produces 230 tons of thrust and operates routinely at 300 bar main chamber pressure, making it the highest pressure operational rocket engine ever to be built.
One time, Raptor even reached 330 bar without exploding…
As Elon Musk said, SpaceX could probably get over 250 tons of thrust in the near future, and that “320 bar is achievable, maybe even 330.”
Till the first Raptor for Starship was test-fired in February 2019, the record of highest pressure rocket engine had been held by Russia’s RD-180, at 256.6 bar.
Watch Elon Musk Explaining SpaceX’s Raptor Engine:
A few more videos on Raptor…
Is SpaceX’s Raptor engine the king of rocket engines?
The Insane Engineering of SpaceX Raptor Engines!
Work on developing the Raptor engine first began somewhere in 2009, but it was officially declared in 2012. While the development versions were first test-fired in late 2016, the first Raptor for Starship was test-fired in February 2019.
All Raptor engines are tested at SpaceX’s rocket development facility at McGregor in Texas before delivery to Starbase, SpaceX’s Starship launch facility in South Texas.
Tripod, the original vertical Raptor engine test stand at McGregor…
Vertical Raptor test stands…
Horizontal Raptor test stand…
Raptor flew for the first time in July 2019, powering a prototype vehicle to an altitude of 20m (66 feet). It was a historic milestone as Raptor became the world’s first full-flow staged-combustion engine to fly a vehicle.
By the end of July 2021, SpaceX had already produced its 100th Raptor engine…
SpaceX builds multiple variants of Raptor. Raptor version 2 (V2) is a simplified design of Raptor version 1 (V1).
Raptor-2 is not only more powerful than Raptor-1, it also costs about half as much to build. After ramping up production, SpaceX now builds one Raptor engine per day.
Video: Raptor 1 VS Raptor 2: What’s New // What’s Different
Raptor Vacuum (or “RVac”) engine is meant to be fired in space. The vacuum engines have a much larger nozzle and are designed to operate more efficiently in the vacuum of space than the sea level-optimized Raptor.
Production of the Raptor Vacuum and experimental designs are carried out at SpaceX’s main factory at Hawthorne, California.
The first Raptor Vacuum (RVac) for Starship was shipped from Hawthorne to McGregor in September 2020.
SUPER HEAVY BOOSTER
Super Heavy is the 69 m (230 feet) tall first stage or booster, located at the bottom of the Super Heavy Starship (SHS) system.
That’s more than twice as powerful as the Saturn V rocket, which had 3450 tons.
Super Heavy booster tanks can hold 3,600 metric tonnes of propellant (78% oxygen & 22% methane), comprising 2,800 metric tonnes of liquid oxygen and 800 metric tonnes of liquid methane.
Without propellant, the booster’s dry mass is estimated to range between 160 to 200 metric tonnes. This includes 80 metric tonnes of tank weight, 20 metric tonnes of inter stage (between the booster and Starship spacecraft), and 2 metric tonnes of all the engines and mounts.
The grid fins will not only control the booster’s descent, but also work as a mounting point for a touchdown into “Mechazilla” catch & launch tower’s mechanical arms “Chopsticks”.
Zoomed in image with details: https://t.co/C4S9bv339x
Starship is the second or upper stage, located atop the Super Heavy rocket. The spacecraft stands 160 feet (50 m) tall, and has a dry mass of less than 100 metric tonnes.
Humans for scale…
Starship has four body flaps, two forward flaps mounted near the nose cone and two aft flaps mounted near the bottom. They control the spacecraft’s falling velocity and orientation during the atmospheric re-entry and descent stages, and also enable precise landing at the intended location.
The hinges that mount them are sealed with metal, as they are the most easily damaged component during atmospheric re-entry.
Starship’s heat shield or thermal protection system (TPS) is designed to be used multiple times. It is composed of thousands of hexagon tiles, each mounted and spaced to counteract expansion due to heat.
Hexagon is the most energetically favourable shape for stress distribution and zero straight paths for heat acceleration. 120° is the equilibrium point where applying pressure to any corner will distribute that force equally.
The shape of these heat shield or TPS tiles prevents hot plasma from causing damage, allowing it to withstand temperatures of over 1,400 °C (2,600 °F).
For landing on bodies without an atmosphere, e.g. Moon, Starship may fire its thrusters to slow down and land.
But for landing on bodies with an atmosphere, e.g. Mars, Starship will make an atmospheric re-entry, protected by a heat shield and then perform a belly flop manoeuvre to control its falling velocity and orientation, before firing its engines to flip and make a vertical landing.
Starship has the largest-ever payload capacity of over 150 metric tonnes of cargo and crew as a reusable spacecraft, and over 250 metric tonnes as an expendable. The payload fairing is 59 feet (18 m) high.
The spacecraft has two main and two header tanks, which together total to a capacity of 1,200 metric tonnes, 78% liquid oxygen and 22% liquid methane.
The header tanks are small tanks with roughly 2% of main tank volume for making the landing burn i.e. to flip and land the spacecraft.
At the bottom of Starship are six Raptor engines, which include three Raptor Vacuum engines that are used in space.
Manufacturing of Starship starts with rolls of high-strength stainless steel. These rolls are unrolled, cut, and welded along the cut edge to create a cylinder.
The outer layer of Starship comprises 17 such cylinders and the nose cone, all of which are stacked and welded along their edges. Inside, there are domes between the methane and oxygen tanks. These domes are made by robots and welded at the rate of ten minutes per seam. Subsequently, they are inspected by an X-ray machine.
Starship can be made into many variants, each optimized to serve a particular type of mission. The three main variants are cargo, crew and tanker Starships.
The cargo variant may feature a large door replacing conventional payload fairings, which can launch, store, capture, and return payloads. The payload door would be closed during launch, opened to release its payload once in orbit, and closed again during atmospheric re-entry.
Starship will have a dispenser for satellite payloads. Each satellite will be ejected one by one through the payload slot…
Each such spacecraft can carry 100 people, with private cabins, large common areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters, and a viewing gallery.
Starship has the capacity of carrying over 150 metric tonnes to low Earth orbit (LEO). After its launch, the cargo or crew variant can deliver the payload to Earth orbit and return to land on Earth, or it can remain in Earth orbit for Starship tanker variants (Starship spacecraft minus the windows) to refill its propellant tanks before departing on a long journey.
The launch mission profile goes something like this…
The Starship depot or tanker ships are launched to Earth orbit, where Starship is waiting.
The refilling process begins by docking both spacecraft to each other.
By accelerating slightly with control thrusters toward the tanker, the propellant is transferred in the desired direction.
The refilled Starship then fires its engines and proceeds with cargo and crew to higher Earth orbits, Moon, Mars, or any other destination in the Solar System.
The tanker ship returns to Earth.
Besides its main objective of sending humanity to Mars, the Super Heavy Starship (SHS) system will also deliver satellites and scientific equipment to orbit, run cargo and crew missions to the ISS, provide space tourism, enable refilling of propellants in orbit for long interplanetary flights, send humans and cargo to and from the Moon and other planetary bodies, transport passengers and cargo on Earth at ballistic speed as an alternative to long-haul airline flights, and much more.
Space tourism: Starship’s first mission
Starship’s first flight with humans will be for the Polaris Program funded by Jared Issacman, who financed and commanded the first-ever all-civilian crew on Crew Dragon’s Inspiration4 mission, which was aimed at raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Announced in February 2022, the Polaris Project will comprise up to three human spaceflight missions that will demonstrate new human spaceflight technologies and conduct extensive space research. The all-civilian crew will launch on the first two missions with Crew Dragon, the first of which will fly later this year. The final mission will be aboard the Starship making the four-crew members the first humans to fly with Starship.
Space tourism: First private lunar mission
In September 2018, the dearMoon project, a lunar tourism mission and art project conceived and financed by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa was announced with the targeted launch date being no earlier than 2023.
Video of Starship DearMoon Mission:
The dearMoon mission will be the first-ever all-civilian lunar mission on Starship. It will make a fly-by of the Moon during a week-long journey.
Art lover Maezawa wants to share the unique space experience with 8 other artists from around the world who will fly with him and create artworks in the process which he believes will contribute to world peace. The 8 crew members will be selected via video submissions with applicants ranging from dancers, actors, artists, photographers, filmmakers, to athletes.
Elon Musk hopes to plan the mission in a way so that the ship gets very close to the Moon’s surface.
Starship will be used to launch SpaceX’s next generation Starlink V2.0 satellites.
An artist’s rendering of Starship releasing the entire stack of Starlink V2.0 satellites directly in the target orbit…
While Falcon 9 delivered 60 Starlink V1.0 satellites per launch to orbit and a maximum of 53 Starlink V1.5 satellites per launch to orbit, Starship can place around 120 Starlink V2.0 satellites into orbit at a time.
Performance-wise, while each Falcon 9 launch of 60 260-kilogram Starlink v1.0 satellites added about 1080 Gbps of instantaneous bandwidth to the constellation, a Starship launch of 120 1250-kilogram Starlink v2.0 satellites can add around 19,000 Gbps (19 terabits per second).
This means Starship can offer around 10 times as much performance to LEO as Falcon 9, and a single Starship launch could theoretically expand total network capacity roughly 20 times more than one Falcon 9 launch.
Launching a larger crew and cargo to the ISS and LEO
Starship can accommodate larger cargo and crew and deliver satellites further and at a lower marginal cost per launch than the Falcon rockets currently in use. It can deliver both cargo and people to and from the ISS with significant capacity for in-space activities and a variety of payloads.
Launching telescopes, equipment, probes, etc.
Since its payload compartment is larger than any fairing currently in operation or development, Starship can launch high capacity space telescopes even larger than the James Webb telescope, that too at a low cost. For example, the Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST 16m) with 10 times the resolution of the James Webb Space Telescope and up to 300 times the sensitivity of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Starship can bring heavy machinery to destinations in space, such as drilling rigs on the surface of bodies. The mission may enable much more comprehensive research of their interiors and underground resources at a reasonable cost.
Starship can enable large experiments including missions to the Moon and Mars for returning rock samples.
It can enable recovery of space debris, which are defunct artificial objects orbiting the Earth.
It can travel to Neptune, drop a lander on its moon Triton with a telescope to study the outer Solar System and exoplanets in other stars.
It can launch a space probe orbiting around Io, a moon of Jupiter, which is difficult because the mission would require protection from intense radiation and a large delta-v budget (an estimate of the total change in velocity (delta-v) required for a space mission) or range.
It can launch a Uranus Orbiter, providing a direct launch to the Uranus system in lesser time compared with existing launch capabilities.
It can deliver the Interstellar Explorer spacecraft to 200 AU in 15 years of flight time from original design concepts.
It can enable direct injection of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) spacecraft to a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) target, eliminating the outbound Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) spiral trajectory leg and shortening overall mission time by two years.
Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, who use solar sails to travel between the stars, has proposed a mission riding on a Starship cruising to Mars.
Orbital refilling is critical to the economic feasibility of transporting large numbers of crew and cargo to the Moon and Mars.
SpaceX Starship’s Orbital Refilling is ‘Very Important’ – Elon Musk Explains:
Starship will enable on-orbit propellant transfer for low-cost delivery of significant quantities of cargo and people on long-duration, interplanetary flights.
Remote refilling of propellants in orbit will allow the Starship spacecraft travelling on a long journey to generate the significant amount of energy necessary to propel itself onto an interplanetary trajectory.
Propellant production on the surface of Mars will enable Starship to return home to Earth.
Transporting humans and cargo to the Moon & Mars
Starship will transport people and supplies to the Moon but, most importantly, it will be the first spacecraft that humans will use to reach Mars in the not-so-distant future.
Developing bases on Moon and Mars to support future space exploration requires the transport of large amounts of cargo for research and human spaceflight development.
Starship is designed to carry these building blocks.
In the case of Mars, Starship will be capable of transporting up to 450 tonnes of cargo per trip only after getting refilled with propellants by Starship tankers or depot in Earth orbit. When it lands on Mars, it will be refilled with propellants produced on its surface using local resources, before taking off and returning to Earth with 20 to 50 tons of cargo.
MOON LANDER FOR NASA’S ARTEMIS PROGRAMME
The Artemis program is a United States-led international human spaceflight program for long-duration crewed landings on the Moon, specifically the South Pole, by 2025.
Under this program, NASA will carry out a series of ground-breaking missions on and around the Moon to prepare for the next giant leap for humanity: a crewed mission to Mars.
Heir to NASA’s mighty Saturn V rocket, which carried the Apollo project to the Moon, Space Launch System (SLS) has been built to do the same for the Artemis project, that has its eyes first on the Moon and then on Mars.
Artemis also involves the construction of a small space station, the Lunar Gateway, in orbit around the Moon. The first components of this will be launched by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. The PPE and HALO, as the two pieces are called, provide the essentials for a self-sustaining lunar orbital habitat: essentially the pressurized cabin and the power source that keeps it operational and allows manoeuvring.
An artist’s rendering of the Lunar Gateway…
NASA’s deep space exploration plans are to be carried out by its expendable transport system comprising Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, and the Lunar Gateway.
Orion will fly astronauts between Earth and the lunar orbit, where the Lunar Gateway will be positioned. Under a European Space Agency (ESA) contract, Airbus is responsible for building the European Service Module (ESM), which both propels and manoeuvres the Orion spacecraft and provides the crew with water and oxygen, as well as regulating thermal control.
The first mission under NASA’s Artemis programme is Artemis-I, a test flight mission of NASA’s SLS launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft. On this mission, SLS will launch an uncrewed Orion on a voyage of 26-42 days, out of which at least 6 days will be in a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the Moon.
On Artemis-I’s successful completion, SLS-Orion will be certified for crewed missions.
The second mission, Artemis-II, will be the test flight of the first crewed mission. It will make a flyby of the Moon.
The third mission, Artemis-3, will be the first crewed mission to the Moon. It will land the first woman and the first man of coloured origin on the Moon, where only 25 men have gone and none since the Apollo Programme ended in 1972, 50 years ago.
NASA’s SLS cannot carry enough mass to lunar orbit to enable astronauts to descend directly to the lunar surface. Hence they will have to rendezvous with a waiting descent vehicle called the Human Landing System (HLS) to journey the last few hundred miles.
NASA introduced the Human Landing System (HLS) programme for private U.S. companies to enable the first of the numerous people to set foot on the Moon under the Artemis program. The Moon lander will operate only between the lunar orbit and the lunar surface. It will not return to Earth.
So NASA’s expendable SLS-Orion system will ferry astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit, while the HLS will provide taxi service, transporting astronauts from lunar orbit to the Moon and back.
In April 2020, NASA selected SpaceX and two other American companies, Dynetics and Blue Origin, to design and develop human landing systems (HLS) for its Artemis-III mission.
SpaceX’s proposed Human Landing System (HLS), is a simplified version of its Starship spacecraft. It will have proven avionics, guidance and navigation systems, autonomous rendezvous, docking and precision landing capabilities, as well as thermal protection, and a spacious cabin with familiar displays and interfaces like those on its Dragon spacecraft.
Starship HLS will have windows, airlocks and solar panels near the top along with an elevator for the astronauts to reach the Moon’s surface.
Unlike the regular Starship, SpaceX’s Moon landing system will be without aerodynamic grids and heat shield, as those are only needed during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Without a landing pad, Starship HLS’s powerful Raptor engines would create a crater on Moon surface and cause the landing system to tip over on making a touchdown. The rising lunar dust can create problems too.
Hence the final phase of the landing manoeuvre will be done by firing a set of high-thrust “methox” (gaseous methane and gaseous oxygen) thrusters to be located mid‑body on the lander, specifically to address the problem of lunar surface erosion.
The same thrusters would also be used to launch from Moon surface. Moreover, Starship HLS will be supplied with electrical power by a band of solar panels around the circumference of the vehicle.
Starship HLS mission profile goes like this…
The mission requires on-orbit propellant transfer. That is why prior to its launch from Earth, a custom variant of Starship, a propellant storage (or depot) ship will be launched into a stable Earth orbit and then partially or fully filled by around 4 to 14 Starship tanker flights carrying propellant. The Starship HLS vehicle will then launch and dock with the already-loaded propellant depot to get refilled.
Once fully refilled, Starship HLS will be able to proceed with significantly large amount of payloads for its work operations between lunar orbit and the Moon surface. Work entails transporting crew, supplies, equipment, and science payloads to enable long stays and extensive exploration of the surface of Moon.
The refilled lander will fire up its Raptor engines and head to the Moon, where it will enter a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) chosen by NASA as the International Gateway’s orbit.
On reaching NRHO, Starship will dock with the International Gateway or the crewed Orion spacecraft, launched from Earth by NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
Starship HLS will receive the Artemis astronauts and land them on the Moon for a stay of several days, that will include five or more spacewalks or Extravehicular Activities (EVAs).
Starship HLS will launch back to NRHO, returning the astronauts to Orion, completing the main mission. The astronauts will depart on Orion for Earth.
Starship HLS may return to an Earth orbit, where it could be refuelled to carry on future crew and cargo missions to the lunar surface.
In April 2021, NASA awarded the HLS development contract to SpaceX, making Starship Human Landing System (HLS) the lunar lander for the historic Artemis-III mission.
The HLS contract requires crewed lunar lander development and two lunar demonstration flights – one uncrewed and one crewed – not earlier than 2024.
SpaceX has to prove the performance and reliability of Starship HLS by first flying demonstration missions before launching the first crewed lunar mission for NASA.
After the orbital launch test, there will be three additional flight tests of Starship for fuelling demonstrations: a tank-to-tank transfer of propellant, Starship-to-Starship transfer of propellant, and a complete fuelling of Starship from a depot and a long-duration flight to mimic the in-space time of a lunar mission.
Depending on the demonstrations, the nominal target for an uncrewed test flight of Starship to the surface of the Moon — and back up to orbit around the Moon — is toward the end of 2024. If this is successful, it would set the stage for the Artemis III mission, carrying NASA astronauts down to the Moon.
NASA had initially decided to select and fund two landers but due to significant budget constraints for the human landing system program, it could select and fund only one lander.
After losing the contract, Blue Origin, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, first protested the award to SpaceX at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). When the protest was rejected, it filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims against NASA. Legally bound by both actions, NASA and SpaceX had to stop working on the Moon mission which resulted in an unnecessary delay of more than six months.
Not giving up on the HLS program, Blue Origin claimed that SpaceX got preferential treatment in the selection process for the Artemis Programme.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) documentation on Starship HLS had revealed that SpaceX would require as many as 16 launches (14 refuelling launches spaced around 12 days apart plus the Moon-bound Starship launch and Starship depot launch) to fully refill a Starship lunar lander and place the spacecraft in an unusual lunar orbit.
Blue Origin raised the matter of SpaceX needing 16 launches to refuel in space (that meant a waiting period of almost six months) to get Starship HLS’s tanks refilled before starting for the Moon. The company went so far as to run down SpaceX’s proposal, stating that it prevented the U.S. from landing on the Moon in a safe and sustainable way.
The question raised was: Will the astronauts have to wait half a year in orbit for Starship HLS to get fully refilled?
That was, of course, a gross underestimation of Starship.
Elon Musk tweeted:
Elon Musk believes that it’s unlikely to take more than eight tanker launches to refill the lunar Starship. That would mean a total of ten launches, including the depot and lander.
He also added that it would not even matter if each Starship lunar lander mission somehow required 16 launches. Since both Starship spacecraft and boosters are meant to be fully reused multiple times, Starship tankers should be able to launch every few days or maybe every week.
SpaceX will be able to move ahead to the next step for the moon mission i.e. orbital refuelling with two Starships, only after completing Starship’s orbital test launch successfully. NASA had selected Starship for a propellant demonstration in October 2020.
As for the maiden orbital flight, early this month, Elon Musk tweeted:
Under the Artemis programme, commercial deliveries (which were planned to begin in 2021, now delayed) will perform science experiments, test technologies and demonstrate capabilities to help NASA explore the Moon and prepare for human missions.
To this effect, in 2019, NASA had announced the eligibility of SpaceX and four other American companies for the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative to deliver science and technology between Earth and the Moon for NASA, ahead of human landings.
An artist’s rendering of a cargo variant of Starship HLS that will launch from Earth and land on the surface of the Moon…
Like the International Space Station, the Lunar Gateway will also require resupply missions. In 2020, NASA selected a variant of Dragon to run resupply missions to the Gateway.
In March 2022, NASA announced that it would be exercising an option under the original SpaceX HLS contract that would allow a second-generation Starship HLS design to conduct a demonstration mission after Artemis-III as part of the second crewed lunar landing mission.
NASA’s decision was based on its requirement for additional lander concepts from other American companies for subsequent missions. The selected new commercial spacecraft will join the second-generation Starship HLS in journeying to the Moon.
Super Heavy Starship and NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) Moon Rocket
NASA is preparing to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, establish sustainable lunar exploration by 2028, and plans to send astronauts to Mars in the mid-2030s.
NASA rolled out its first SLS Block 1 rocket in March 2022 – more than 5 years behind schedule after more than 12 years of work. Despite being made from recycled material (from the Space Shuttle), which was supposed to save money, SLS is both late and expensive. It was originally scheduled to take off in 2016.
Some $23 billion and a few scrubbed launch attempts later, on 16 November, 2022, SLS was finally launched making it the current world’s most powerful rocket, capable of lifting over 104 tons of payload to low Earth orbit. NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket could carry 130 tons to orbit.
SpaceX’s Super Heavy Starship system is nearly twice as powerful as NASA’s SLS-Orion system. It is also the most powerful rocket system ever to be built. Being fully reusable, it is also significantly low cost.
Starship is a new and out-of-the-box way of doing things for successful space missions. SpaceX has developed the gigantic rocket system almost entirely on its own. On its successful launch, it will claim the super heavy-lift crown with a low-Earth-orbit capacity of more than 150 tons.
SLS’s cost per launch depends on how many launches eventually take place, but an official estimate puts it at more than $2 billion.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk is hoping to lower launch costs down to less than $10 million. That would mean 0.5% of the cost of an SLS launch.
SpaceX can independently carry its own crew and cargo multiple times to the surface of the Moon and back.
Starship’s super-heavy lifting power and cargo-hauling capability will improve sustainability in space allowing for longer space missions and enabling the Moon to be used as a stepping stone to the exploration of Mars.
Mars is approximately half the diameter of Earth, with a surface area only slightly less than the total area of Earth’s dry land. It is less dense than Earth, having about 15% of Earth’s volume and 11% of Earth’s mass, resulting in about 38% of Earth’s surface gravity.
Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos.
There are currently 16 or 17 known artificial satellites in Mars orbit, of which 8 are active since 2001.
Of the 8 objects, 3 belong to NASA, 1 to ESA, 1 to India’s ISRO, 1 jointly to ESA and Russia’s ROSCOSMOS, 1 to UAE’s UAESA and 1 to China’s CNSA.
There’s a huge crater (named after Sergei Korolev (1907–1966), the head Soviet rocket engineer and designer during the Space Race in the 1950s and 1960s) on Mars permanently filled with frozen water.
Korolev Crater is 82 kilometres (51 miles) wide, filled by a sheet of ice that is 1.8 kilometres (1.1 miles) deep at its thickest point. (Photo taken from orbit by ESA’s Mars Express)…
It takes 6 months to reach Mars, but Starship will complete the journey in half the time.
Initial launches to Mars would be uncrewed and their main purpose would be to identify potential risks, confirm the presence of water in the target area, and to deliver essential equipment needed to provide energy and life support for future missions and set up a mining operation.
Every 26 months, Earth catches up to Mars’ elliptical orbit and the two planets have their closest rendezvous, providing an optimal launch window. This allows for a trip to Mars to last around 7 to 9 months.
Between 2022 and 2030, there are four spaceflight launch windows to make a trip to Mars: Q3 (3rd quarter) of 2022, Q4 of 2024, Q4 of 2026 and Q4 of 2028 – Q1 of 2029.
According to Elon Musk, if the 2024 cargo missions to Mars succeed, the first humans could land in Mars in 2026.
The main purpose of the crewed mission would be to launch SpaceX’s fuel production plant and build a small base that could be expanded in the future. SpaceX expects many of the Starships to stay on Mars and serve as habitats for the first settlers.
The goal of SpaceX’s Mars program is to send a million people to the Red Planet by 2050, which could lead to the development of a self-sustainable Martian city in 50–100 years.
Since Starship can carry around 100 people at a time, it will have to be used in fleets to bring hundreds or thousands of passengers at a time to Mars.
As per Elon Musk’s estimates, eventually more than 1,000 Starships could be needed to depart for Mars during each launch window for a settlement of 100,000 people on the Red Planet. If launch rate growth is exponential, a million people will be sent in 20-30 years from the first human landing.
The launch mission profile will be as follows:
After launching to Earth orbit, Starship will stop for on-orbit propellant refilling before departing for Mars.
After a 3-month journey, it will enter Mars’ atmosphere at 7.5 kilometres per second and decelerate aerodynamically.
This engineering video simulates the physics of Mars entry for Starship:
Being fully reusable, Starship will enter Mars’ atmosphere and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere during its missions. So its heat shield will be designed to withstand multiple entries.
The Mars base will be developed around Starships and a solar-powered plant that will produce methane and oxygen out of Martian water ice and atmospheric carbon.
LAUNCH & LANDING PADS
Super Heavy Starship (SHS) launch and landing will take place at four SpaceX sites: the ground launch sites at Starbase in South Texas and Cape at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, and the offshore launch platforms of Deimos and Phobos.
Starbase and Cape will be Starship’s home bases.
Starbase – Gateway To Mars, South Texas
Starbase is the home base of Starship located in a small town called Boca Chica approximately 32 km east of Brownsville in southern Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico coast, right on the southern tip of Texas along the Rio Grande river and the US-Mexico border.
Starbase is the world’s first commercial launch site designed for orbital missions.
SpaceX purchased its first piece of land in Boca Chica back in 2012 with the intent to create a purely commercial launch site where the company could launch its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to accommodate its growing launch manifest and meet tight launch windows.
Plans for the site were first announced in August 2014. Construction work started in the latter half of 2015. But in early 2018, there was a change of plans and it was decided that Starbase would be used exclusively for its massive next-generation rocket system, Starship.
Elon Musk’s reason for choosing Texas was that the Southern state has the right amount of rules and regulations for the Starship project.
The Boca Chica location was chosen for Starship manufacturing and launches as it represents a clear path to orbit, given the need to launch eastward to “have help from Earth’s rotation.” It also features a “good clear area” that is sparsely populated.
Starbase’s rapid growth significantly accelerated the Starship programme.
The modest commercial launch facility that SpaceX started with has now become a thriving base with thousands of employees working round-the-clock on site construction and expansion.
Starbase, Texas Build Site 360º Virtual Tour:
Starbase is a factory, R&D facility, testing site and everything put together. It’s filled with massive warehouses, tents, launch vehicles and spacecraft, high bays, a gigantic launch tower, etc. And there’s lots more to come.
Starship atop a self-propelled modular transporter (SPMT)…
SPMT is a platform heavy hauler with a large array of wheels. It is used for transporting massive objects that are too big or heavy for trucks.
360º drive through Starbase:
Watch Elon Musk playing the tour guide of Starbase, showing the High Bay where Starships are assembled, the new Mega Bay under construction and talking about SpaceX’s plans to get Starship flying:
All of Starship prototypes (including the full-scale prototypes) have been constructed and have also made their test flights (including high-altitude test flights) at Starbase.
There were some spectacular launches and crashes of Starship prototypes…
SpaceX has launched its Starship vehicles up to heights around 30,000 to 40,000 feet in the air before attempting to land them back on Earth. Most of those tests ended in fiery explosions, with only one successfully sticking its landing on 5 May, 2021.
Since then, SpaceX is preparing Starship for its first orbital test flight.
Besides humans, the work force at Starbase includes two “Spot” robotic dogs made by Boston Dynamics. SpaceX renamed them as Zeus and Apollo…
Each Boston Dynamics robot dog (priced from $75,000), is equipped with sensors capable of collecting a variety of data and can approach and closely inspect places unsafe for humans (or dogs), making it a suitable choice for inspecting and collecting data from Starship prototype tests.
Its features include 360° panoramic cameras to keep the launch pad supervised, noise anomaly detection, thermal inspection, and leak detection. It can sense and avoid obstacles, climb stairs, and even open doors.
The robot dogs can walk through thick, white clouds of nitrogen, while inspecting Starship test sites when tanks create gas leaks or other harsh environments highly dangerous for humans.
SpaceX even provides housing for the life-like four-legged metal creatures on the site. This red-coloured dog kennel seen in July 2020, was the earlier yellow and black painted Zeus’s house…
While Starbase’s rapid growth has been welcomed by some locals for creating jobs and attracting tourists, it has been criticized by others for displacing a beachfront community and endangering the surrounding wildlife refuge.
Development of the fully-integrated Super Heavy Starship launch system requires major expansion of the site which includes building new launching and landing pads, integration towers and other launch support infrastructure. But this has met with opposition from environmentalists and other groups citing the impact on fish and wildlife and public safety.
Starship’s first test launch to orbit was delayed in part by the regulatory review of Starbase’s environmental impact, which precluded U.S. regulatory authority – the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), from granting SpaceX its orbital launch license. The review was expected to impose conditions on SpaceX, which could delay its Starship programme.
The FAA regulates all space activities of the U.S. commercial sector by requiring parties to obtain launch and re-entry licenses before launching a rocket or other kind of spacecraft into orbit.
Since SpaceX is contracted by NASA to develop Starship as a lunar lander for the agency’s Artemis program and NASA hopes to conduct the first landing as soon as 2025, SpaceX has to push hard to keep going to get anywhere near that date. It came up with Plan B.
Elon Musk decided that its facilities at Cape Canaveral would become the main launch sites, and Starbase would be used to continue advanced research and development work such as trying out new design and new versions of the massive spaceship system.
In February 2022, during a “Starship Update” at Starbase, Elon Musk announced that Florida would likely become the home base for Starship launches.
Three and a half months after the announcement, following a long delay of 13 months, the FAA finally gave its decision after consulting with various government agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service.
SpaceX will need to address the more than 75 actions that the FAA has listed in order for the company to lessen its environmental impact on the area. If SpaceX makes those changes, it should help pave the way for the company to receive a launch license for Starship, though that still isn’t guaranteed.
SpaceX indicated on Twitter that it sees the decision as good news for moving forward with its launch plans.
After 60 years serving as the nation’s launching pad for many of humanity’s greatest discoveries, NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida is busier than ever – and is thriving as the nation’s premier multi-user spaceport, facilitating the largest concentration of space launch operators in the world.
It offers commercial launchers the ideal location to consolidate manufacturing, integration, testing, in campus-like areas, on the same spaceport where they will launch.
Since late 2021, SpaceX’s Roberts Road operations area, used for processing and storage of the company’s Falcon boosters and payload fairings, has been expanded to support Starship development plus integration and support of future Starship missions at Kennedy Space Centre.
A render of Cape, SpaceX’s second Starship factory…
In December 2021, SpaceX began construction of its Starship orbital launch pad near LC-39A’s launch tower, which in the past had launched the historic Saturn V and Space Shuttle flights, and since May 2020, launches SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS.
Crew Dragon is the only American spacecraft sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
And LC-39A is SpaceX’s only pad capable of launching Crew and Cargo Dragon, and Falcon Heavy rocket.
Since the Starship launch pad is very close to the launch pad used for sending humans to the ISS, NASA wanted SpaceX to come up with a plan to ensure that any Starship explosions would not put that operational launch pad at risk.
SpaceX proposed to address NASA’s concerns with a plan to launch Crew Dragon from its other launch pad in Florida – Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), 10 km away on Space Force property – which would be retrofitted with the required launch capabilities.
Additionally, SpaceX plans to strengthen and make LC-39A more resilient to any accidental Starship explosion or tremendous forces during Starship lift-offs.
With NASA’s approval, the move is soon going to happen, starting with Cargo Dragon launches from SLC-40, and thereafter, Crew Dragon launches. All in time for Starship launches from LC-39A.
Thus, Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) will have two Starship launch pads: LC-39A and LC-49. Approval of LC-49 for Starship launches was announced by NASA in October 2021.
Launch Complex 49, is a 175-acre site located north of Launch Complex 39B within the centre’s security perimeter. The potential of a second site at LC-49 could provide a considerable increase in Starship launch cadence from the Kennedy Space Centre.
Meanwhile, SpaceX has made rapid progress on the construction at LC-39A, Starship’s first Florida launch pad and tower…
The gigantic launch and catch tower “Mechazilla” at Cape is built off-site in steel sub-sections and then transported to Cape for assembly.
Offshore launch sites
SpaceX has two floating launch platforms to provide a sea launch option for Super Heavy Starship: Deimos and Phobos.
Named after the two moons of Mars – Deimos and Phobos, both were originally deep-sea oil platforms before they were modified and refitted (from January 2021) to support Starship launches.
Their main decks measure 78 m (260 ft) long by 73 m (240 ft) wide, and their helicopter decks, 22 m (72 ft) in diameter.
Four columns extrude at each corner at the bottom, measuring 15 m (49 ft) long and 14 m (46 ft) wide each.
Both will be equipped with the gigantic Mechazilla tower.
An artist’s rendering…
Deimos and Phobos are to be used for launches into space, post-launch landings and for the more long-term Earth-to-Earth transportation.
STARSHIP DEVELOPMENT & TEST FLIGHTS
SpaceX’s development approach for making rockets is to build and launch several prototypes for collecting data and refining its design. These prototypes are subjected to several tests before launch, the first of which are proof pressure tests, wherein the vehicle tanks are filled with liquid or gas to test their strength and factor of safety.
Some of the tanks are subjected to failure tests, whereby they are deliberately pushed beyond their limit, and this results in their bursting due to the immense pressure of liquids inside.
After that, there are “static fire” tests on the prototype, wherein the engine is fired for a few seconds while the vehicle remains tethered to the ground.
On passing these tests, the vehicles will either fly within the atmosphere, or launch to orbit.
Flight of the vehicle involves launching off vertically, flying to a certain height, descent and vertical landing.
Construction of initial prototypes of the upper stage Starship began from end of 2018 at Starbase. Each prototype has been an improvised version of the previous one, with changes implemented after post-flight data analysis. SpaceX conducts multiple static fires on its prototypes prior to test flights.
Vehicles built from 2018 to end of 2021…
Eight prototypes (Starhopper, SN5, SN6, SN8, SN9, SN10, SN11 and SN15) have been flown so far, and there have been nine flights (Starhopper flew twice) in all.
Starship’s sub-orbital flights
A tubby, three-legged stainless steel Starship Hopper or Starhopper was the first prototype of the Starship program.
Starhopper (nicknamed Hopper or Hoppy) was designed to develop the landing and low-altitude, low-velocity control algorithms for its Starship second stage vehicle.
It had a full 9-metre diameter, but it wasn’t a full-height rocket. It lacked header tanks, and its existing nosecone was destroyed by high winds, so it was replaced by a smaller dome.
Starhopper had only one Raptor engine. After going through several test fires, it made two successful one-metre tethered “hops” in April 2019.
Tethered “hop” means that the engine is ignited while the vehicle remains tethered to the ground.
In July, Raptor made its first flight. It was a historic milestone as Raptor became the world’s first full-flow staged-combustion engine to fly a vehicle.
Raptor flew Starhopper to an altitude of around 65 feet (20 m). It was Starhopper’s first free (untethered) low-altitude test flight, which lasted 22 seconds.
In August, on its fourth and final test, Starhopper performed a single grand hop which reached an altitude of around 500 feet (150 m) before descending to a landing pad some 500 feet away. The entire flight lasted just 57 seconds.
150 Meter Starhopper Test flight:
Mission accomplished, Starhopper was retired after the flight.
Today, Hopper (or Hoppy as it’s lovingly called) permanently stands at Starbase, where it works as water tank and equipment mount for communication, weather monitoring and tracking for operations conducted at Starbase.
Starship’s Low Altitude Flights
After Starhopper, SpaceX constructed the first full-height Starship prototypes, Starship Mark-1 (or MK1) at Starbase, and Starship MK2, at another SpaceX facility in Florida.
MK1 was presented at Elon Musk’s Starship Update held at Starbase in September 2019.
In November 2019, MK1 was destroyed during a cryo proof test.
A cryo test (or cryogenic pressure test) ensures if a spaceship is able to withstand in-flight atmospheric pressures and extremely low temperatures.
Footage of the MK1 failed pressure test:
Slightly shinier than MK1 and the first and only Starship development to take place at SpaceX’s Florida build site, MK2 was scrapped shortly after MK1 failed.
Work on developing MK3 started when MK1 was undergoing tests. After MK1’s failure, MK3’s rings were recycled.
MK4 was scrapped along with MK2 & the rest of the Florida shipyard development marking the end of the ‘MK’ series.
After the “MK” prefix, SpaceX named its subsequent prototypes with the prefix “SN” (Serial Number).
SN1 was the first in a new “Serial Number” series of Starship. SN1 also brought about a new iteration to the Starship design. Some early rings of MK3 were reused in SN1.
Between February and May 2020, prototypes SN1, SN2, SN3 and SN4 were subjected to cryo tests. The successful ones went on to conduct static fire tests.
SN1 collapsed during a cryo test.
SN2 ended up being a small scale test tank, primarily aimed at testing the thrust-puck (the centre small disc with all the thrust running through it) which failed on SN1 weeks earlier.
SN3 collapsed during a cryo test.
SN4 was the first Starship with a successful static fire (3x in total) including one from the header tank, before a massive explosion and loss of vehicle.
Starship SN4 explodes shortly after a static fire test:
SN7 was a much smaller test tank, taking a step back to successfully prove a new type of stainless steel – 304L (instead of 301 used in previous test vehicles).
SN7 test tank exploded during an intentionally explosive pressure test in June 2020. It was the second cryogenic pressure test to failure and was an intended explosion in order to check the prototype’s endurance.
SpaceX’s first mechanical pooch, Zeus was first seen at the testing facility inspecting the fallen wreckage of SN7.
SpaceX robot dog Zeus walking around the launch site:
SN5 and SN6 were built without flaps or nose cone giving them a distinctive cylindrical shape.
In August 2020, SN5 performed a 45-second, 500-feet (150m) hop, successfully landing on a nearby pad. Subsequently, it was retired.
Starship SN5 150m Flight Test:
A month later, in September 2020, SN6 repeated SN5’s 45-second, 500-feet hop, and was retired.
Starship SN6 150m Flight Test:
Test Tank SN7.1 used the newer 304L Stainless steel and was tested to failure at a pressure of 8 bar to aid data into the construction of future Starships made from that steel alloy.
That same month, SpaceX test-fired its Raptor Vacuum (R-Vac) engine for the first time.
Starship’s High-Altitude Flights
SN08 was a new Starship design and the first full-scale, fully-constructed Starship since MK1 back in 2019.
SN8 successfully launched and ascended, powered by 3 Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee (or target altitude) of 12.5 km.
Then it made a belly flop manoeuvre or horizontal free fall, controlling its fall with four wing flaps. The flip manoeuvre from horizontal descent to vertical just before touchdown was successful too. It was an absolutely flawless flight!
However, a sudden low pressure in the methane header tank caused by the flip manoeuvre reduced fuel supply and thrust, and SN8 crash landed on the pad in RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly) or simply put, an explosion.
The explosion destroyed SN8, but its nose cone and upper flaps survived the impact.
The 6-minute, 42-second flight journey was watched by SpaceX Starship fans and space enthusiasts with bated breath.
Starship SN8 High-Altitude Flight Test:
Starship SN8 High-Altitude Flight Recap:
Today, one of SN8’s two upper flaps (or forward flaps) greets visitors arriving at the nearby Brownswille Airport, the entry point to Boca Chica town.
Two months later, in February 2021, Starship SN9 successfully launched and ascended to an altitude of 10 km.
During the landing flip manoeuvre, one of the Raptor engines failed to re-ignite which led to SN9 over-rotating and hitting the landing pad at high speed, at a 40-degree angle. The resulting explosion destroyed SN9.
Starship SN9 6 minute 26 second flight journey:
A month later, in the beginning of March, Starship SN10 travelled the same altitude of 10 km flight. However, it did not deaccelerate enough and made a hard landing, which damaged its legs and crushed part of the skirt, leaving it with a slight lean.
A fire near the base of the rocket, caused by a propellant tank rupture resulted in SN10’s explosion eight minutes after landing.
While SpaceX employees inspected the fallen wreckage and assessed the damage sustained by the Raptor engines, Zeus wandered around the site for any potential hazards.
Robot dog Zeus checking out the fallen wreckage of SN10…
The 6 minute 24 second test flight of SN10:
Starship SN10 High-Altitude Flight Recap:
That same month-end, Starship SN11 launched in heavy fog, and ascended to 10 km. But it had some engine issues.
Telemetry was lost at T+5:49 (5 minutes, 49 seconds after lift-off), shortly after the defective engine was ignited for the landing burn at an altitude of around 2000 feet (600 meters).
The vehicle blew apart in air just before it was supposed to land, scattering metal debris on the ground up to 8 km (5 miles) away.
Starship SN11 6 minute flight journey:
Starship SN12, SN13, and SN14 were not fully assembled.
Similar to previous Starship high-altitude flight tests, SN15 was powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee, approximately 10 km in altitude. It made a controlled horizontal free-fall and then the flip manoeuvre from horizontal descent to vertical just before successfully landing for the first time after four failed attempts by previous prototypes.
Starship SN15 5 minute 59 second flight journey:
SpaceX is now preparing to launch the fully stacked rocket system to orbit, a significantly more challenging task.
Super Heavy Starship Developments Post-SN15
Since the successful launch and landing of SN15, SpaceX has built several Starships and Super Heavy boosters. It has fully assembled the orbital launch tower from a concrete base, fully assembled Mechazilla, thoroughly tested Chopsticks and QD arms, performed full stacks of Super Heavy and Starship and partially tested a full stack. It has carried out several static fires, Wet Dress Rehearsals (WDR) and cryo proof tests (or pressure tests).
WDR means that the rocket is fully loaded with thousands of tons of fuel and propellant and runs through a simulated launch countdown that ends just before engine ignition.
It began mass-testing Raptor-2 engines, made several major changes in S24 and B7 design. It completed the world’s largest rocket propellant farm, built and used a structural test stand, built and tested multiple test tanks, and much more.
SpaceX has also built a new Raptor factory from an empty field. It built, tested and shipped numerous engines to Starbase, completed tens of thousands of seconds of hot fire testing. It began constructing its second Starship factory and launch site in Florida, where work has rapidly progressed.
All this has happened under the daily scrutiny of excited and enthusiastic SpaceX fans, photographers and space professionals dedicated in sharing Starship and Starbase events in real-time, as they happen.
In July 2021, the gigantic Starship launch tower was assembled using nine prefabricated sections of heavy-duty bolted in steel. The same month, Super Heavy Booster 3 became the first to fire three of its Raptor engines.
Super Heavy Booster 4 was the first booster with the capability to mate to Starship spacecraft, while Starship SN20 was the first to feature a body-tall heat shield, mostly made of black hexagonal heat tiles.
The 394-foot-tall full stack, taller than NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket…
After a few hours, the two were de-stacked. Subsequently, both vehicles underwent finishing work to make them ready for a series of tests.
In November 2021, the first static fire with all 6 Raptors on Starship…
In February 2022, Starship S20 and Booster 4 were stacked again for the second full-stack demonstration…
The second full-stack fit test served as a backdrop for Elon Musk’s first official Starship presentation since the last one in September 2019, almost 2.5 years.
The “launch & catch” Mechazilla tower and its giant arms “Chopsticks” made their debut at this event.
Standing under the towering profile of the well-lit Starship rocket system, Elon Musk provided an update on its design, development, and testing…
Elon Musk said that by the end of the year, SpaceX will be able to produce a ship and a booster per month. And he also shared the planned trajectory of the first orbital flight of the Starship system, which is as follows:
The Super Heavy-Starship launch system will lift off from Starbase. Super Heavy will separate from Starship roughly three minutes after launch, and make a splashdown 30 km offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, the Starship spacecraft will continue to accelerate to orbital velocity. Its flight path would only cross above the ocean over the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, along the Florida Straits, avoiding populated land.
Starship will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean to land in the ocean approximately 100 kilometres off the northwest coast of Kauai, Hawaii.
The entire spaceflight will last 90 minutes.
A few days after the event, S20 was de-stacked by using “Chopsticks”. Since then, several cryogenic proof tests have been conducted on S20 and B4, separately.
In March, SpaceX stacked SN20 and B4 for the third time. It was to carry the first-ever test on the fully-stacked Super Heavy Starship system.
The main purpose of this first full-stack cryo proof test was to ensure that all the systems required to fuel Starship atop Super Heavy were working as expected.
While awaiting FAA approval for orbital launch, B4 and S20 were expected to make the first orbital test flight in early 2022.
But the schedule was changed. Two new vehicles B7 and S24, were chosen for the first orbital test flight…
Booster 7 heading to the launch pad…
Starship 24 rolling out to the launch pad…
Booster 7 with its 33 Raptor engines, arrived at the orbital launch mount (OLM) in late June 2022 for undergoing pre-launch tests…
But on 11 July, it faced an unexpected and severe explosion on the OLM…
In the past, SpaceX has performed “spin prime” tests with all Raptors engines installed on Starship prototypes, flowing high-pressure gas through the engines’ turbines to get them up to operating speeds and pressures. But things went differently with B7 and its 33 Raptors.
The incident began when a cloud of flammable gas produced during flow test was accidentally ignited. It worked like a small fuel-air bomb, rapidly combusting to produce a violent explosion, sending a shock wave miles across the South Texas facility.
After the initial explosion, the fire also expanded to burn as much of the resulting gas as possible, producing a fireball that briefly reached 80-90 meters (around 260-300 feet) in height.
The sturdiness of B7 and the OLM was demonstrated all through the unexpected explosion, shockwave, and fire thereafter. SpaceX got lucky and the fire eventually self-extinguished.
In a worst-case scenario, B7’s engine section and all 33 Raptor engines could have been seriously damaged, while the subsequent pad fire could have also significantly damaged crucial pad systems, requiring weeks of repairs. B7 could have been totally lost.
Elon Musk tweeted that the issue was specific to the engine spin start test as Raptor has a complex start sequence. And that “Going forward, we won’t do a spin start test with all 33 engines at once.”
After inspecting the booster, he said that the damage was minor, and the orbital Starship test could fly “as soon as next month” if testing goes well.
B7 was de-mounted from the OLM and wheeled back to the high bay for a closer inspection of its 33 Raptor engines and moderate repairs.
On 6 August, B7 was moved from High Bay to launch pad for testing.
Both B7 and S24 underwent back-to-back static fires.
On 10 August, in another milestone for the Starship development programme, B7 carried out the first-ever static fire of a Booster on the Orbital Launch Mount. It was a single engine static fire.
Two days later, B7 conducted a full duration 20-second static fire…
While SpaceX is gearing up for Starship’s first orbital test flight, it has acquired yet another non-Starlink customer to use the gigantic fully reusable transportation system that will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle.
On 18 August, 2022, Japanese company SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation announced that it has selected SpaceX’s Starship for launching its Superbird-9 communications satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit in 2024.
SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation is Asia’s largest satellite operator with a fleet of 16 satellites, and Japan’s only provider of both multi-channel pay TV broadcasting and satellite communications services.
Superbird-9 will deliver broadcast and broadband missions in Ku band primarily over Japan and Eastern Asia, in response to mobility and broadband demands.
Apart from SpaceX’s Starlink V2 satellite launches, it will be one of the earliest launches for Starship’s early operational phase.
There will be several payload launch and fuel depot test flights prior to the earliest crewed missions which will include Jared Isaacman’s Polaris Dawn mission and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s dearMoon mission. Starship HLS will land astronauts on the Moon on NASA’s Artemis-III mission in 2025 or 2026, after an uncrewed landing demonstration mission.
On 31 August, B7 completed its first ever multiple engine static fire test on the Orbital Launch Mount:
Some more static fire tests followed with upgrades.
After the first three full stacks with Ship 20 and Booster 4, the fourth and fifth full stack took place with Ship 24 and Booster 7 in October 2022.
A fully stacked Starship is still set to conduct the next round of tests for its fully reusable launch system ahead of its debut orbital launch attempt as soon as later this year.
If the Ship 24 and Booster 7 survive further static fire tests, SpaceX could begin preparing the same rocket for Starship’s orbital launch debut. But if significant issues arise during testing, they could be replaced with the new and improved pair: likely Ship 25 and Booster 8 or 9.
In October 2022, the first two of the twelve passengers flying on Starship’s second all-civilian lunar flyby mission were announced: 82-year-old Dennis and 57-year-old Akiko Tito. Dennis Tito was the first private astronaut/space tourist when he paid for a seat on the Russian Soyuz for a week-long flight to the International Space Station in 2001.
Starship’s second Moon flyby mission will be unique from the Polaris and DearMoon missions because instead of buying a whole mission, people can buy a single seat, which will result in a huge cost reduction for an individual person.
A few days ago, SpaceX carried out a full duration static fire test of 14 engines on Booster 7.
Meanwhile, Starship production and development work continues at a rapid pace. SpaceX’s 200th Raptor-2 engine, delivered in early November 2022…
This post is part of my current series which covers the phenomenal rise of the world’s no.1 aerospace company and manufacturer, SpaceX.
The series include the following posts:
Discovering SpaceX: Falcon Rocket Family
Discovering SpaceX: Fleet of Recovery Ships
Discovering SpaceX: Cargo & Crew Dragon
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