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SpaceX’s ultimate goal is to make life multiplanetary. The founder and chief engineer at SpaceX Elon Musk founded the company in hopes of colonizing Mars. He envisions a fleet of one thousand Starships heading to the Red Planet over the course of about 25 years. “It appears that consciousness is a very rare and precious thing and we should take whatever steps we can to preserve the light of consciousness. Only now, after 4.5 billion years has that window been open. That’s a long time to wait and it might not stay open for long," Musk said in 2019 when he unveiled the new spacecraft design, “I’m pretty optimistic by nature, but there’s some chance that window will not be open for long, and I think we should become a multi-planet civilization while that window is open.”
Starship will be a massive two-stage launch vehicle capable of transporting tons of cargo and one hundred passengers on long-duration voyages through deep space. The stainless-steel Starship will consist of a spacecraft and a rocket booster called Super Heavy -which will only be needed to carry the Starship spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere. The booster will return from space to conduct a vertical landing at a spaceport, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
Prototypes of Starship are actively under construction at a SpaceX South Texas facility located in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville, Texas. Musk shared an aerial photograph of the location –“Gateway to Mars,” he said. In just a couple of years, the facility has grown to become a Starship factory.
Gateway to Mars— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 7, 2020
SpaceX teams at Boca Chica are rapidly manufacturing several stainless-steel Starships simultaneously. These will undergo a series of tests. In December, Musk stated he expects to build at least 20 Starship prototypes to test out this year. Each test-vehicle will feature minor changes needed towards improving the craft. This production line of Starships is referred to as SN, serial number. Currently, the company is manufacturing Starship SN5 and SN6, possibly even SN7. As seen in the photos below, several vehicles are under assembly.
Starship's top nose cone section features aerodynamic fins.
Teams also work on vehicles inside large Vehicle Assembly Buildings (VAB). The building protects against weather while workers stack and weld the stainless-steel rings that make-up the craft. Musk shared yesterday they will build a 81-meter building to stack Starship and Super Heavy in, "Giant high bay coming soon," he wrote via Twitter
Giant high bay coming soon— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 6, 2020
Starship SN5 and/or SN6 under construction.
All vehicles will undergo a cryogenic pressure test meant to test the structure and weld strength. Starship needs to withstand a pressure strength of at least 6 bar to conduct a test flight, with 8.5 bar being the ideal strength to take crew to space. Previous test-vehicles were destroyed during explosive tests. If SN5 survives pre-flight testing, engineers will install a Raptor engine that will propel the craft on a 150-meter test flight from the launch pad, that is approximately four miles down the road from the assembly site.
SpaceX Starship LaunchPad
What is left of Starship SN4 after a test. Read more: SpaceX Starship prototype explodes during test in Texas
The Raptor is SpaceX’s next-generation engine. Most rockets are fueled by RP-1, rocket-grade kerosene. Raptors are unique from any other engine in the rocket industry, fueled by a combination of cryogenic Methane (CH4) and Liquid Oxygen (LOX). Engineers designed this engine with Mars in mind. Raptors' propellant can be made on Mars upon arrival by taking carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere and subsurface ice-water to synthesize Methane through the Sabatier process. This engine could ignite the spacefaring civilization era, giving astronauts the option to return to Earth.
Musk considers Starship development a “top SpaceX priority.” According to a recent CNBC report, Musk emailed his employees – “Please consider the top SpaceX priority (apart from anything that could reduce Dragon return risk) to be Starship.” He asked them to “consider spending significant time” in Boca Chica to help the company accelerate Starship development, “For those considering moving, we will always offer a dedicated SpaceX aircraft to shuttle people,” he wrote. “[…] We need to accelerate Starship progress.”
SpaceX runs 24/7 operations to accomplish sending humans back to the moon and Mars within our lifetime. “I hope I'm not dead by the time people go to Mars. [...] If we don’t improve our pace of progress, I’m definitely going to be dead before we go to Mars. If it’s taken us 18 years just to get ready to do the first people to orbit, we’ve got to improve our rate of innovation or, based on past trends, I am definitely going to be dead before Mars,” Musk told reporters earlier this year.
The company has a very ambitious timeline to meet. The first private customer that will ride Starship on a voyage around the moon, booked his flight for the year 2023. And NASA recently selected SpaceX to build a Starship Lunar Lander as part of their Artemis program which aims to take the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024.
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.