SpaceX founder Elon Musk detailed the progress on the company’s next-generation Starship program on Monday, saying that the giant rocket could attempt its first launch into Earth’s orbit next year. plate.
Leveraging the growing production complex in South Texas, SpaceX is building new Starship prototypes at the speed of several vehicles per month. Some of the prototypes are strictly for ground testing, but SpaceX’s next Starship testbed, the SN6, could try a 150-meter (500-foot) hop test later this week.
The most recent Starship test craft, named SN5, was the first Starship to have a full-size propulsion tank for successful launch and landing. During a brief up and down test of the SN5 on August 4th, the prototype flew to an altitude of 500 feet, powered by a single methane-fueled Raptor engine, and then made a controlled descent to a nearby landing site.
Musk is “making good progress” in the Starship program, speaking over the phone at the virtual Human to Mars summit on Monday. He highlighted SpaceX’s advancements in expanding the production of Starship test vehicles made of stainless steel at the company’s Boca Chica development and testing facility near Brownsville, Texas.
“The most important thing we need to advance to Starship is a production system,” Musk added that building a prototype was relatively “relatively easy”.
Over the past year, Boca Chica has created numerous structures, high bay assembly buildings, and launch infrastructure elements. SpaceX has assembled its first Starship prototype outdoors using outdoor welding, but the team is moving production to an indoor climate control facility.
Several Starship prototypes have been destroyed during ground testing since SpaceX created its first Starship test vehicle last year. However, SpaceX collected critical data during these tests, allowing engineers to update design specifications and improve Starship designs.
“Building a production system so that we can ultimately build hundreds or thousands of spacecraft is the hard part,” Musk said on Monday. “But, as people can see in the aerial photography of Boca Chica, we have made good progress in the production system.
Musk said, “A year ago there was almost nothing, and now we have a lot of production capacity. “We are building more and more ships faster and we will start producing boosters soon.”
Musk said SpaceX plans to begin production of its first prototype called Super Heavy, Starship’s first stage booster later this week.
— RGVAerialPhotography (@RGVaerialphotos) September 1, 2020
Starship is central to the vision of Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, who founded the company with a mission to send people to Mars. The future spacecraft could cruise to Mars with up to 100 people, Musk says.
SpaceX plans to hop the Starship test vehicle and Super Heavy prototype to a higher altitude before attempting to launch orbit. As with early Starship test flights, the first Super Heavy prototypes will start with two power units made by SpaceX and fly at low altitudes with a subset of the Raptor engines, Musk said.
Higher altitude Starship experiments require SpaceX to install an aerodynamic nose cone alongside fins and other air surfaces on future Starship vehicles. High-altitude Starship flights require three Raptor engines before SpaceX finally enters a six-engine Starship configuration for orbital missions, and heat shielding for re-entry.
With the addition of the nose cone, the ship’s height reaches about 164 feet (50 meters). The vehicle is about 9 meters in diameter, about 1.5 times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
For orbital missions, the Starship will fly high above the giant super heavy Tier 1 boosters. According to SpaceX’s website, when combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack is about 120m high.
Both phases will return to Earth for a propelled landing, just like the first phase of SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket. Then Super Heavy and Starship can be completely reused.
SpaceX is said to be capable of carrying more than 100 metric tons (220,000 pounds) of cargo into low orbit since NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 launcher than any rocket.
Musk said Monday that engineers have modified the design of the Super Heavy Booster by increasing the thrust of the Raptor engine, allowing SpaceX to remove multiple Raptors from the design. It’s the latest in a series of design adjustments since Musk unveiled a giant rocket program named “BFR” in 2016.
Musk previously said the Super Heavy Booster would have more than 30 Raptor engines powered by methane fuel, but Musk said Monday that SpaceX is trying to “simplify the configuration”.
“That could be 28 engines,” Musk said. “There are still many engines. We will also increase the engine’s momentum.”
The super heavy booster’s outer engine ring has a fixed nozzle, and an inner group of eight raptors vectorizes the thrust to steer the rocket during takeoff and landing.
Over time, according to Musk, the engines in the outer row can generate about 300 tons or about 600,000 pounds of thrust respectively. The eight internal engines each generate approximately 210 tons or 420,000 pounds of thrust. That would give the Super Heavy more than 15 million pounds of total thrust at takeoff.
SpaceX is keeping an eye on the huge floating platform for Super Heavy and Starship launches in operation, but the short test flight is based on Boca Chica. SpaceX stopped working on Starship development at Florida’s Space Coast site last year.
When asked on Monday if SpaceX can perform its first orbital spacecraft launch and reentry, Musk replied “probably next year.”
Musk continued, “I want us to fly a lot. “The first may not work. This is an unknown area. No one has ever built a fully reusable orbital rocket. So just knowing it is pretty important.”
SpaceX doesn’t get smaller with Starship. It’s about the same size as NASA’s Saturn 5 moon rocket, but with a more efficient engine. SpaceX also aims to refuel spacecrafts that are ultimately in Earth’s orbit, filling up the propellant as it flies on missions to the Moon, Mars and other destinations.
“That’s the gateway to the galaxy, or at least the solar system,” Musk said.
Last year, a billionaire entrepreneur said that Starship’s first orbit launch could take place in 2020. Despite the rapid pace of the project, SpaceX will not be able to meet that schedule.
Musk said on Monday that SpaceX is not doing much of the development of the life support systems Starship needs to accommodate people.
“We need to make the mission of delivering satellites and hundreds of satellites to work automatically before they can pick up people,” Musk said. “We know how to create a complex life support system that can handle a wide range of environments, changes in atmospheric pressure, and changes in the oxygen and nitrogen ratios in the air.”
Developed in collaboration with NASA, SpaceX’s human-grade Crew Dragon spacecraft first flew astronauts to the International Space Station to demonstrate the capsule’s life support system and SpaceX’s first spacesuit design. The suit worn by Dragon astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken is designed to protect the crew if the capsule is decompressed during flight.
“In short, we know how,” Musk said. “For longer missions like going to Mars, you want a more playable system than what’s in Crew Dragon. I want to recycle things, recycle more water and more oxygen. But if you go to the moon, there is no problem.”
SpaceX’s long-term roadmap includes in-orbit refueling capabilities that enable travel to the moon. NASA chose SpaceX’s spacecraft vehicle. As one of three contenders to human-grade lunar landers in May, along with Blue Origin and Dynetics, the Space Agency is set to fund a lunar probe later this decade.
In accordance with NASA’s planned architecture for the Artemis lunar landing program, astronauts will launch from Earth on top of a government-owned space launch system heavy-duty rocket and Orion crew capsule. The human-grade lander launches separately from a commercial rocket, then flies to the moon, waiting for the docking of the Orion crew in lunar orbit.
The astronauts float on the lunar lander, descend to the lunar surface, conduct experiments and spacewalks, then head for the Orion capsule, which will take off and bring the crew back to Earth.
NASA and SpaceX’s lunar lander contract was initially valued at $135 million, but it could grow if Starship wins the NASA competition with Blue Origin and Dynetics. $135 million would be just a few percent of the total Starship development cost Musk estimates to be over $5 billion.
Musk said Monday, “Thank you for the support from NASA, but this is probably a $5 billion program. “It helps, but it’s not a game changer. But hopefully, if we succeed with Starship, they can take the lunar base seriously.”
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