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SpaceX Starship: an Introduction

Since its founding in 2002, spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX has made waves in the space industry. It began with the Falcon 1 in 2006 — and 17 years later, the company is on their way to Mars.

SpaceX Starship in a cloud of smoke

While it might sound like something out of a sci-fi film to the rest of us, founder and CEO Elon Musk hopes that SpaceX's Starship, currently under development, will be the vehicle to help us build cities on the red planet.

Manufactured at Starbase, one of the world’s first commercial spaceports designed for orbital missions, Starship is a spacecraft 'designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond'. In this article, we're going to explore how Starship works and SpaceX's plans for the craft.

What's the use of SpaceX's Starship?

Elon Musk believes Starship could be a significant step in 'making humanity multiplanetary'. Musk's ultimate goal is to build cities on Mars, for humans to live on when Earth is no longer habitable — either due to climate change or war. Musk believes that these cities must be large and populated in order to be self-sustaining. SpaceX claims that Starship will be able to carry up to 100 people on long interplanetary flights.

At just over 120m tall in its entirety, Starship is the tallest and most powerful spacecraft ever built. As well as transporting people, Starship will be able to transport cargo such as satellites and equipment to assist with the construction of a 'Moon base', as SpaceX call it. With a payload capacity of up to 150 tonnes fully reusable, Starship has impressive potential.

How much will Starship cost?

By the end of 2023, it is thought that Starship will have cost SpaceX at least $5 billion. Elon Musk has cited 2029 as an estimated year for Starship's first Mars landing — so we can assume there will be another few billion dollars worth of development before then. Musk has stated that he eventually hopes to fly Starship three times a day for $1 million a launch.

How does Starship work?

SpaceX Starship being prepared for launch on a service structure

Starship is made up of the Starship spacecraft, with a payload section and where crew and cargo would be transported, and Super Heavy, the rocket or 'booster' of the craft's launch system. SpaceX's website calls Starship 'a fully reusable transportation system' — this means that it is designed for repeated launch, orbit, and landing. Super Heavy is designed to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere following a flight, and land at the craft's designated launch site.

Starship uses Raptor engines, fuelled by 'methalox', a combination of methane and oxygen. According to SpaceX, the Raptor has twice the thrust of the earlier Falcon 9 Merlin engine. A combination of three Raptor engines and three Raptor Vacuum engines, made for use in the vacuum of space, will be used to power Starship. A further thirty-three Raptor engines will power Super Heavy, for a total of thirty-nine engines on Starship as a whole.

In order for the ship to make long distance journeys while transporting up to 100 tons, tanker vehicles refill Starship in low-Earth orbit. This essentially means that Starship can travel much further with more cargo.

Pros and cons of reusable spacecraft

Blue Origin spacecraft landing on a landing pad

Starship is intended to be fully reusable. NASA's Space Shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft, operating for thirty years between 1981 and 2011.

Reusable spacecraft have a lesser environmental impact than non-reusable crafts, owing to the fact that they require fewer materials and result in less waste. This also makes them cheaper — in 2016, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that reusing the Falcon 9 could result in a cost reduction of up to 30%.

However, a reusable craft has a reusable rocket, not reusable fuel — and a launch itself can cause damage, so there is still a considerable environmental cost. Following Starship's inaugural launch, for example, multiple environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration, claiming it failed to properly assess the potential environmental harm of the Starship launch.

Similarly, a reusable spacecraft is heavier, meaning it has a lower payload capacity than a non-reusable craft. Reusable crafts also require a considerable amount of testing between launches — however, this is still considerably less than building another non-reusable craft, and altogether the saved time, cost, and environmental impact of reusable crafts far outweighs these drawbacks.

The billionaire space race

SpaceX isn't the only company looking to get into orbit — in recent years, a 'billionaire space race' has quickly evolved between Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.

Blue Origin

Similarly to Musk's goal of colonising Mars, Bezos founded Blue Origin 'with a vision of millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of Earth. Blue Origin successfully completed its first crewed sub-orbital space flight in 2021, and has since completed six crewed spaceflights.

Unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin generally approaches its technological advancement incrementally, starting smaller and building on the work of each successful development. Given the number of successful flights they've already completed, Blue Origin stands as a real competitor for SpaceX.

SpaceX beat Blue Origin to a contract with NASA for their Artemis program in 2021, and both NASA and SpaceX were sued by Blue Origin a few months later. The case was dismissed, but earlier this year Blue Origin won a NASA contract of their own — so it seems neither SpaceX or Blue Origin has lost the space race yet.

What's next for Starship?

SpaceX Starship

There is a Starship test flight planned for Saturday the 18th of November — originally scheduled for the day before, Friday the 17th, the flight has been pushed back to replace a part of the craft.

If all goes to plan, Starship will travel part-way around the planet before landing in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Following their unsuccessful first try in April this year, a successful test flight would be a huge step for SpaceX.

Looking even further forward, Elon Musk has said that Starship's first uncrewed mission to Mars could land within four years, and SpaceX has been contracted by NASA to land people on the moon from as soon as 2025.

Hopefully SpaceX will have a successful test flight this weekend — and we can only wait to find out where Starship goes from there.


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