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SpaceX Starship

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Starship
Left: Starship spacecraft SN16 on display
Right: Super Heavy booster BN4[a]
Function
ManufacturerSpaceX
Country of originUnited States
Cost per launchUS$2 million (goal)[2]
Size
Height120 m (390 ft)
Diameter9 m (30 ft)
Mass5,000 t (11,000,000 lb)
Stages2
Launch history
StatusIn development
Payload capacities
Payload to low Earth orbit
Mass>100 t (220,000 lb) reusable
Volume1,100 m3 (39,000 cu ft)
Payload to higher Earth orbits,
the Moon or Mars
Mass>100 t (220,000 lb) with one or multiple refuellings
Volume1,100 m3 (39,000 cu ft)
Stage information
First stage – Super Heavy
Length70 m (230 ft)
Propellant mass3,400 t (7,500,000 lb)
Engines33 Raptor
Thrustc. 72 MN (7,300 tf; 16,000,000 lbf)
Specific impulse350 s (3.4 km/s) sea-level Raptor
PropellantLiquid CH
4
 / O
2
Second stage – Starship
Length50 m (160 ft)
Propellant mass1,200 t (2,600,000 lb)
Engines3 Raptor
3 Raptor Vacuum
Specific impulse350 s (3.4 km/s) Raptor
380 s (3.7 km/s) Raptor Vacuum
PropellantLiquid CH
4
 / O
2

The SpaceX Starship (or simply Starship) is a fully-reusable two-stage super-heavy-lift launch-vehicle under development by SpaceX. It was first envisioned in 2005, with the first full sized prototype being completed in 2019, and the first successful test flight occurring on the 4 August 2020. As of September, 2021, the Starship Prototype SN20 (or Ship 20) is planned to perform an orbital flight later in the year. When operational, the launch system will be the heaviest and most powerful to date, producing 72 meganewtons or 17,000,000 lbf of thrust at lift-off, more than twice that of a Saturn V rocket.

To significantly lower the cost of space flight, the spacecraft will be fully-reusable and will be made of stainless steel, with minimal inspection and maintenance needing to be performed between flights. The spacecraft will also take advantage of orbital propellant transfer—refueling the craft with specialized "tanker" Starships, to enable greater performance in missions to higher Earth orbits, the Moon, or Mars. When operational, SpaceX plans to replace its current fleet of Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon 2 spacecraft with Starship spacecraft. Starship is also planned to see use in multiple upcoming space missions, including SpaceX's Mars Program, and NASA's Artemis Program.

The launch system will comprise a first stage booster, referred to as Super Heavy, and a second stage spacecraft, referred to as Starship. Both stages will be powered by SpaceX's Raptor engines, burning liquid methane and liquid oxygen, and constructed out of a stainless-steel alloy, for its superior strength-to-mass ratio. The reusability of the spacecraft has raised the need for a drastically different launch complex, as the launch tower is required to lift, stabilize, and recover both stages. As of 2021, Starship and Super Heavy are both manufactured at the SpaceX South Texas launch site.

Development history[edit]

Render by SpaceX of Big Falcon Rocket in flight
Official render of Big Falcon Rocket in flight

Past vehicle's design[edit]

At least as early as 2005, SpaceX used the code name "BFR" for a conceptual heavy‑lift launch vehicle, powered by a larger version of the Merlin engine.[3] In 2012, in public discussions about a conceptual Mars colonization program, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk described the launch vehicle, then known as the "Mars Colonial Transporter" (MCT), as a fully reusable super heavy-lift launch vehicle that could deliver around 150 to 200 tonnes (330,000 to 440,000 lb) to low Earth orbit.[4] The vehicle will be powered by the staged combustion cycle Raptor engine, burning liquid methane and liquid oxygen propellants.[5]

In September 2016, at the 67th International Astronautical Congress, Elon Musk unveiled the "Interplanetary Transport System" (ITS).[6] The launch vehicle would have measured 122 m (400 ft) tall and 12 m (39 ft) in diameter and possessed a payload capacity of 300 t (660,000 lb) in a fully reusable configuration.[6] The first stage, then known as the "Interplanetary Transport System booster", would have been powered by 42 Raptor engines, while the second-stage "Interplanetary Spaceship", would have featured nine Raptors and served as a passenger-carrying spacecraft to transport passengers to Mars and other interplanetary destinations.[7][8] Both stages would have been constructed from carbon fiber composites.[9] Notably, ITS saw the first appearance of in‑orbit propellant transfer, using several "ITS tanker" vehicles to refuel Interplanetary Spaceships in Earth orbit before departure to Mars.[10] At the 68th International Astronautical Congress the following September, Musk announced that the Interplanetary Transport System was to be superseded by a smaller rocket called the "Big Falcon Rocket", or nicknamed "Big Fucking Rocket", measuring only 106 m (348 ft) tall and 9 m (30 ft) wide.[11]

In November 2018, the present names of the launch vehicle were first used: "Starship" for the upper stage and spacecraft, "Super Heavy" for the first‑stage booster, and the collective launch system named "Starship system" or simply "Starship".[12] Around that time, Musk revealed yet another redesigned concept of the spacecraft, using three rear fins and two front canard fins for attitude control, replacing the previous delta wing and split flaps.[13] In January 2019, Musk announced that the launch vehicle's structure and tanks would be made out of stainless steel instead of carbon fiber composites.[14][15] Musk stated that the strength‑to‑mass ratio of the new design should equal or better than the earlier design, from the low temperatures of cryogenic propellants to the extremely high temperatures of atmospheric re‑entry.[16][17] At the time, SpaceX considered using transpiration cooling—flowing cryogenic propellant through pores in the spacecraft skin—to protect the spacecraft during atmospheric entry;[18] however, this feature was dropped in later designs in favor of ceramic hexagonal heat shield tiles.[19] In October 2019, the spacecraft's engine configuration was changed to its present form, with six Raptor engines: three optimized for sea‑level and three optimized for vacuum.[20] The new design also reduced the number of rear fins from three to two, and placed them parallel to the heat shield.[21]

Picture of Starship SN8 remains next to Elon Musk
Elon Musk inspects the wreckage of Starship SN8 after its test flight

Development and prototypes testing[edit]

SpaceX mainly self-funded the development of both the vehicle and the SpaceX South Texas launch site, also known as "Starbase", where most Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy boosters manufacturing takes place.[22] However, some early prototypes were built at a SpaceX facility in Florida; some work has taken place on SpaceX offshore platforms, and plans have been made to launch Starship from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A.[23][24][25]

The South Texas launch site broke ground on 22 September 2014,[26][27] and construction ramped up in late 2018 in preparation for a test vehicle named Starhopper. On 25 July 2019, Starhopper completed a flight test with a maximum altitude of 20 m (66 ft).[28] On 27 August, Starhopper flew a second test flight, reaching an altitude of approximately 150 m (490 ft), and was subsequently retired from service.[29] Starship Mk1 (Mark 1), unveiled in September 2019, was the first full‑size Starship prototype.[30] The Mk1 prototype was built alongside the similarly designed Mk2 in Florida.[30] The Mk1 was destroyed during a cryogenic test, and the Mk2 was never finished.[31][32] Adopting a new "serial number" nomenclature, an improved Mk3 prototype was renamed to SN1 (Serial Number 1), and development on Mk4 was halted shortly thereafter.[33] SN1 was destroyed during a cryogenic pressurization test on 28 February 2020, caused by a fault in the bottom tank structure.[34]

On 8 March 2020, SN2, as a stripped-down test tank, completed a cryogenic pressurization test.[34] On 3 April 2020, SN3 collapsed during a cryogenic test due to a configuration error.[35] SN4 exploded on 29 May 2020 after its fifth static fire test with a Raptor engine because of a fault in a quick disconnect fuel line.[36] SN5 completed a 150 m (490 ft) hop with a single Raptor engine on 4 August 2020, becoming the first full-scale prototype to complete a flight test.[37] SN6 would replicate SN5's flight on 24 August 2020.[38] Prototype SN7 was never completed, but its tank was used for various tests.[39] The first prototype built with 304L stainless steel was Starship SN8, equipped with three Raptor engines, a nosecone, and two pairs of body flaps.[40] On 9 December 2020, SN8 performed a suborbital flight with an apogee of 12.5 km (7.8 mi) but was destroyed upon landing due to low pressure from a fuel "header" tank used during landing.[41] SN9 flew to a lower altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi) on 2 February 2021, but was also destroyed upon landing;[42][43] SN10 repeated the flight on 3 March 2021 and landed successfully, but exploded 8 minutes later.[44][45]

The first Super Heavy booster, BN1, was completed on 8 March 2021 and disassembled soon after.[46] Starship SN11 was also launched to 10 km (6.2 mi) on 30 March 2021 but disintegrated on its descent.[47][48] Skipping over SN12, SN13, and SN14, SpaceX incorporated several design improvements to SN15,[49] which performed a successful flight to 10 km (6.2 mi) and a soft landing on 5 May 2021.[50][51] Booster BN3 was completed in June 2021, but the booster would not launch and instead being a pathfinder.[52] As of September 2021, SN20 and BN4[a] are assigned to an orbital flight, scheduled for late-2021.[54][55]

Development timeline[edit]

SpaceX Starship development history#Booster 5SpaceX Starship development history#Future prototypesSpaceX Starship development history#Booster 4SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN20/Ship 20SpaceX Starship development history#BN3/Booster 3SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN16/Ship 16SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN16/Ship 16SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN15SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN12, SN13, SN14SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN11SpaceX Starship development history#Booster BN1SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN10SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN9SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN8SpaceX Starship development history#SN7, SN7.1, and SN7.2SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN5, SN6SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN5, SN6SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN3, SN4SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN3, SN4SpaceX Starship development history#SN2SpaceX Starship development history#Starship SN1 (Mk3)SpaceX Starship development history#Mk1, Mk2, Mk3, Mk4SpaceX Starship development history#Mk1, Mk2, Mk3, Mk4SpaceX Starship development history#Starhopper

Launch vehicle design[edit]

The Starship launch system consists of the Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft. The primary function of Super Heavy is to provide the spacecraft with enough velocity to launch itself to orbit, whilst also carrying enough fuel to perform hover maneuvers that guide the booster toward the landing pad or catching arms.[56] The spacecraft will boost itself to orbital speed, and perform various tasks, depending on the mission objective.[57] For missions that require going to higher orbits, leaving the Earth's or even the Sun's sphere of influence, Starship must be refueled in orbit using its tanker variants.[58] Most Starship variants can perform atmospheric entry and land vertically with no extensive refurbishment in-between flights.[59] The manufacturing begins with rolls of 304L stainless steel sheet metal, 4 mm (0.16 in) thick and 72 in (180 cm) wide.[60] The sheets are bent into "rings" that measure 9 m (30 ft) in diameter.[61] These stainless steel rings are then welded to sections; the sections then being stacked and welded together to form the bodies of both Starship and Super Heavy.[62]

Starship spacecraft's current design[edit]

A photograph of Starship SN20 heatshield getting inspected
Starship SN20's ceramic tiles inspection. These red and green tapes on the heat shield indicate faulty tiles.

The Starship spacecraft is 50 m (160 ft) tall, 9 m (30 ft) diameter and has a total propellant capacity of 1,200 t (2,600,000 lb).[63] The bottom‑most section, informally called the "skirt", houses the Raptor engines, as well as composite overwrapped pressure vessels that store helium gas used to spin up the Raptor turbopumps.[64] Positioned above, sits the liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellant tanks, separated by a "common dome" containing a small, spherical methane "header tank" which contains propellant for landing.[65] Six Raptor engines power the spacecraft, three optimized for atmospheric pressure and three for the vacuum of space.[66]

The payload section—positioned above the propellant tanks—houses cargo, crew, or both, and a liquid oxygen header tank.[67] For spacecraft specialized to transport, capture and return satellites and space debris to Earth, a large clamshell fairing door replaces conventional rocket payload fairings.[68] The door would be closed during launch, opened to release payloads once in orbit, and closed again during the re-entry to Earth. In the crewed variant, the payload bay would house cabins. To control the spacecraft attitude during re‑entry and descent, Starship actuates two pairs of flaps which are installed perpendicularly to the body of the spacecraft—one pair of larger "aft flaps" sit at the bottom of Starship; a smaller pair of "forward flaps" is placed on the nose cone.[69] The windward side of the spacecraft is covered by hexagonal ceramic tiles that made up Starship's heat shield, which protects the spacecraft from the extreme heat of atmospheric entry.[70] Simulations from SpaceX have shown that 99.9% of the vehicle's kinetic energy would dissipate upon re‑entry to Earth; however, only 99% on entry to Mars due to its much thinner atmosphere.[71]

Render by SpaceX depicting Starship HLS on the Moon
Official render of Starship HLS offloading astronauts and cargo onto the lunar surface

Planned future spacecraft variants[edit]

In April 2021, NASA contracted SpaceX to manufacture a modified Starship, known as the Starship Human Landing System (Starship HLS), to serve as the crew‑carrying lunar lander for the Artemis program.[72] Under the contract, the lunar lander would carry out two lunar landing missions, the first being an uncrewed demonstration and the second being a crewed lunar landing occurring as early as 2024.[73] Starship HLS has several substantial differences from the main design, most notably the lack of the heat shield and body flaps.[74] This spacecraft is equipped with a docking port, solar panels, and additional landing thrusters placed higher up the ship to minimize thrown dust during landing.[75][76] SpaceX also envisioned a lunar cargo lander variant that delivers heavy payloads directly to the lunar surface under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.[77]

In the near future, SpaceX plans to build several variants of Starship designed to perform various tasks. Initially, the original spacecraft design will be used to transport cargo on mission; however, the design will eventually be spun-off into a separate cargo variant, for this purpose.[1][78] This variant will be specialized at transporting and deploy spacecraft into orbit by using a large cargo bay door that could open in space to deliver and pick up cargo.[79] The Starship tanker variant will come into service later, used only to carry propellant, which will automatically rendezvous with and refuel spacecraft in Earth orbit.[80] This feature will enable Starship to travel to higher orbits or further destinations in the Solar System.[80] The Starship crew variant is a large, long‑duration spacecraft capable of carrying 100 passengers or cargo to low Earth orbit, the Moon and Mars.[81] In 2017, Musk described the crewed variant of Starship as having 825 m3 (29,100 cu ft) of pressurized space, containing about forty cabins, storage space, a galley, an entertainment area, and a solar storm shelter to protect against ionizing radiation.[82][83] SpaceX has also described the possibility of developing a Starship variant without a booster to carry passengers on suborbital point‑to‑point flights—which SpaceX terms "Earth‑to‑Earth"—up to a 10,000 km (6,200 mi) range.[84] SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell stated that this service could be cost‑competitive with business class airlines and may be available as soon as 2025.[84]

Super Heavy booster's current design[edit]

The booster stage—Super Heavy—measures 70 m (230 ft) tall and 9 m (30 ft) diameter, with a 3,400 t (7,500,000 lb) total propellant capacity, providing 72 meganewtons of thrust.[63] The bottom of the booster comprises the skirt, housing up to thirty‑three[b] sea‑level Raptor engines that produce a cumulative 74,000 kN (17,000,000 lbf) of thrust at lift-off.[85][86] Pipelines and miscellaneous hardwares are affixed to the outside of the booster.[87] Above the dome[clarification needed] sits the liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellant tanks. The booster is topped-off by a stage adapter, used to attach the upper-stage to.[88] The booster is equipped with four grid fins used to guide the booster during atmospheric re‑entry and descent.[89] Although SpaceX initially designed Super Heavy to include landing legs, these were later removed, since SpaceX plans for the launch tower to instead catch the booster mid‑air.[90][91]

Launch and landing complex design[edit]

A picture of launch tower in construction
Construction of launch tower

The Starship system will be launched from the SpaceX South Texas launch site, Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A and SpaceX Starship offshore platforms— the two platforms named Phobos and Deimos respectively, after the moons of Mars. Each rocket stage will either land on landing pads near the launch site or on autonomous spaceport drone ships.[81][92][93] The launch and landing complex will, at minimum, consist of a launch mount—used to mount the vehicle, a launch tower, and propellant tanks.[94][95]

The launch tower at SpaceX South Texas launch site is 479 ft (146 m) tall, with 469 ft (143 m) of steel tower trusses and a 10 ft (3 m) long lightning rod.[96] Because of its appearance, the launch tower has been informally referred to as "Mechazilla".[91] The launch tower has a quick disconnect arm and an internal elevator for accessing the launch tower and launch system.[97] The launch tower also has a large gantry pulley and steel "chopstick arms", designed to lift, recover and stablize the Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft while on the launch pad.[98] The booster recovery system uses its steel arms to move up and down along the launch tower and side to side on pivots, with a cable system that match the speed of the incoming booster.[99][100][98] The catching mechanism simplifies the reuse of the Starship system, allowing for fast turn‑around time.[101]

Public response[edit]

Enthusiasts[edit]

Critics[edit]

The Starship development program has been the subject of much criticism from residents of Boca Chica village, and Brownville city and other environmental activists, for reasons such as SpaceX having damaged surrounding wildlife, performed unauthorized construction and test flights, the forceful acquisition of residents' homes, and noise pollution.[102][103][104][105] Furthermore, debris from explosions during launch can travel over 5 mi (8 km) downwind, potentially damaging surrounding properties.[106] In response to the criticism, the FAA released a new environmental impact statement, on 19 September 2021, with a final decision pending.[107][108]

Finance[edit]

SpaceX aims for the Starship launch system to become the primary SpaceX orbital vehicle, eventually replacing its existing Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon 2 fleet, and is planned to take cargo to orbit at a far lower cost than any other launch vehicle.[109] In November 2019, Elon Musk estimated a figure of $900,000 for propellant and $2 million for operational costs per launch.[110] The launch system would launch most of its internet satellite constellation, Starlink, with over 12,000 satellites planned to launch by 2026, upwards of six times the total number of active satellites in orbit in 2018.[111][112] An orbital launch of the spacecraft could place up to 400 Starlink satellites into orbit, whereas the Falcon 9 vehicles that SpaceX is currently using to deploy Starlink satellites can only carry up to 60 satellites into orbit per flight.[1] Beyond the low‑Earth orbit launches performed by Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy in the 2010s, the launch system is planned to perform more diverse spaceflight missions with low mission marginal cost.[75]: 30:10–31:30 

The first private contract came on September 14, 2018, when Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa contracted SpaceX for a space tourism mission called the dearMoon project, which would carry a crew of 10-12 people (including Maezawa) on a circumlunar flight, including eight members of the public.[113] In October 2020, the first governmental contract was awarded for developing Starship technologies, where $53.2 million given by NASA is used to perform a transfer of ten metric tons of cryogenic propellant between the tanks of two Starship vehicles.[114] On April 16, 2021, after the HLS design competition, NASA selected Starship HLS over two competing proposals by Blue Origin and Dynetics and awarded SpaceX a US$2.89 billion contract to develop the lander.[115][73][116] In June 2021, the United States Air Force updated the Rocket Cargo program and begin assessing the use of rocket to quickly transport payload between spaceports on Earth.[117] Although the Air Force refused to specify which vehicle would transport cargo under the program, media sources speculated that Starship is a likely contender as the launch system matches the proposal.[118]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Around August 2021, SpaceX has also used an alternate "Starship X" and "Booster X" naming scheme, where X is the serial number.[53]
  2. ^ Early orbital flight tests will fly with less than a full complement of thirty-three engines.[85]

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