How the mighty SpaceX rocket could conquer the solar system

If everything goes according to plan, SpaceX will launch the largest rocket in human history in January. At a height of over 120 meters, the Starship is supposed to bring NASA astronauts to the moon. The CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, has even bigger ambitions: He wants to use the rocket to settle people on Mars.

Much has been written about Starship’s capabilities for human spaceflight. But the rocket could also revolutionize our knowledge of our neighboring planets and their moons. “Starship could completely change the way we explore the solar system,” said Ali Bramson, a planetary scientist at Purdue University. “Planetary research is going to explode.”

If the spacecraft should live up to the requirements set in it, scientists are already talking about sending missions to Neptune and its largest moon in the outer region of the solar system, about the repatriation of huge amounts of space rock from the Earth’s moon and Mars, and even about developing more innovative ones Methods of protecting the earth from asteroid impacts.

Starship – which is being built at a Texas location called “Starbase” – consists of a large spaceship on a powerful launch vehicle known as the Super Heavy. Both can land back on earth so they can be reused, which reduces costs. The entire space system will be able to carry 100 metric tons of cargo including people on regular, low-cost missions into space. The volume of usable space in the Starship is a whopping 1,000 cubic meters – big enough to house the entire dismantled Eiffel Tower. That leaves a lot of room for imagination. “Starship is just wow,” says James Head, a planetary researcher at Brown University.

In mid-November, Musk spoke at a public virtual session about Starship, hosted by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, about the scientific potential of the project. “It is extremely important that we try to become a multi-planetary species as soon as possible,” he said. “We will learn a lot about the nature of the universe along the way.” The new spaceship could carry “a lot of scientific instruments” on its flights, Musk said – far more than is currently possible. “We will learn a tremendous amount compared to relatively small vehicles with limited scientific instruments like we are currently doing,” he said. “You could bring an object weighing 100 tons to the surface of Europe,” Musk dreams.

Elon Musk

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at the base of the first Starship prototype in Boca Chica, Texas
(Image: screenshot)

At the heart of many of these ideas is that Starship will not only be big, but also be cheap to use. While space agencies like NASA and ESA have to carefully select a few missions to fund and start costing in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, Starship’s affordability could open the door to many more missions. “The low cost of access to space has the potential to really change the game for scientific research,” said Andrew Westphal, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. The cost to get started could be as low as $ 2 million. “You can think of privately funded missions and consortia of citizens banding together to take things to space.”

In addition, Starship has a distinct advantage over other heavy-lift rockets under development such as NASA’s already heavily delayed Space Launch System (SLS) and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. The top half of the rocket is designed to that it can be refueled by other Starships in orbit, so that more of the thrust can be used for scientific equipment rather than fuel. To get people to the moon, for example, eight separate starts would be possible, whereby each successive “tanker spaceship” Bring fuel for the “moon spaceship”, which then sets off for the moon with scientific equipment and crew.

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Scientists are already dreaming of the possibilities Starship could offer them. In early 2021, Jennifer Heldmann of NASA Ames Research Center published an article examining some of the scientific ideas that could arise from Starship missions to the moon and Mars. One big advantage is that Starship could take the full-size equipment with them from Earth – without having to downsize it to fit in a smaller vehicle, as was required on the Apollo missions to the moon. “For example, you could take a drilling rig with you,” says Heldmann. You could drill a kilometer deep like we do on Earth. That would allow unprecedented access to the interior of the Moon and Mars, where ice and other useful resources are believed to be. In the past, such an idea would have been “a little crazy,” says Heldmann. But with Starship, “you could do that and still have room,” she adds. “What else do you want to take with you?”

Since Starship can land on Earth, it will theoretically also be able to carry large amounts of material with it. The sheer volume of samples that could be brought back from various locations would give scientists on Earth unprecedented access to extraterrestrial material. This could shed light on a multitude of scientific riddles, such as the volcanic history of the moon or the question of life and astrobiology on Mars, says Heldmann. Starship could also enable more extravagant missions to other locations, either by launching directly from Earth or perhaps using the moon and Mars as gas stations – an ambitious future that Musk certainly has in mind.

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How the mighty SpaceX rocket could conquer the solar system

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