How SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket could unlock the solar system and beyond


Additionally, Starship has a key advantage over other super heavy rockets in development, such as NASA’s very delayed space launch system and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. The top half of the rocket is designed to be refueled in Earth orbit by other spacecraft, so that more of its lift capacity can be transferred to science equipment rather than fuel. Taking humans to the moon, for example, may require eight separate launches, with each consecutive “oil vessel” supplying fuel to the “lunar spacecraft” which then heads to the moon with scientific equipment and a crew.

Scientists are now starting to dream about what Starship could allow them to do. Earlier this year, an article published by Jennifer Heldmann of NASA’s Ames Research Center explored some of the scientific opportunities that could be opened up by Starship’s missions to the Moon and Mars. A big plus is that Starship could carry full-size equipment from Earth – no need to miniaturize it to fit a smaller vehicle, as was required for Apollo missions to the moon. For example, “you can bring a drilling rig,” says Heldmann. “You could dig a mile, like we do on Earth. This would allow unprecedented access to the interior of the Moon and Mars, where ice and other useful resources are believed to be present. Before, such an idea was “a little crazy”, says Heldmann. But with Starship, “you can do it and still have room to spare,” she adds. “What else do you want to bring? “

Since Starship can land on Earth, it will also, theoretically, be able to bring back large amounts of samples. The sheer volume that could be returned, from a variety of different locations, would give scientists on Earth unprecedented access to alien material. This could shed light on a myriad of mysteries, such as the volcanic history of the moon or “the question of life and astrobiology” on Mars, Heldmann explains.

The spacecraft could also allow more extravagant missions to other locations, either via a direct launch from Earth or perhaps using the moon and Mars as refueling stations, an ambitious future envisaged by Musk.

Let’s go to neptune

One idea, from an international group of scientists called Conex (Conceptual Exploration Research), is a spacecraft called Arcanum, which would use Starship’s lifting abilities to explore Neptune and its larger moon, Triton. Neptune has only been visited once, a flying tour of NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989, and there’s so much we still don’t know about it. “Nobody really thinks this level higher than what Starship could allow,” said James McKevitt, researcher at the University of Vienna and co-head of Conex. “This is what Arcanum is designed to showcase. “

Weighing around 21 tons, the spacecraft would be four times heavier than the largest space probe to date: NASA and ESA’s Cassini-Huygens mission, which explored Saturn from 2004 to 2017. No existing rocket exists. could currently launch such a ship, but Starship would make it possible. Arcane would have many components, including an orbiter to study Neptune, a lander to study Triton, and an indenter to strike Triton’s surface and “perform a seismic experiment” to understand its geology and structure, McKevitt explains. The mission could also be equipped with a telescope, allowing studies of the outer solar system and making it easier to hunt planets around other stars.

Other ideas are even more speculative. Philip Lubin, a physicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, calculated that a sufficiently large rocket, such as Starship, could be used to prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth. Such a mission could carry enough explosives to tear apart an asteroid as large as the 10-kilometer-wide boulder that wiped out the dinosaurs. Its fragments would burn harmlessly in the atmosphere before they had a chance to reach our planet.

The spacecraft could also be a better way to launch giant space telescopes capable of observing the universe. Currently, equipment such as NASA and ESA’s future James Webb Space Telescope must be launched folded, an expensive, complex and delicate procedure that could be prone to errors. NASA has suggested that a proposed super telescope called LUVOIR designed to image Earth-like planets around other stars could launch on Starship, while Musk said SpaceX was already working on “an interesting project, which is to have a very large telescope, take a lens for a ground telescope, and make a space telescope with it.” No other details have yet been revealed.

Say hello to the neighbors

Elsewhere, some scientists dream of using Starship to prepare for visiting other stars. René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and his colleagues say Starship could offer an inexpensive way to test technologies from a spacecraft that can travel several light years to nearby star systems. Starship could launch a sailing spacecraft on a trip to Mars, which would use an onboard laser to push against a thin sail and reach incredible speeds, allowing a demonstration to be conducted beyond Earth’s orbit . “If SpaceX were kind enough to take one of our sails on board and let go halfway through its journey to Mars, we should be able to track its acceleration and trajectory through the solar system for a few days and almost until. ‘in the orbit of Jupiter. , says Heller.

Other ideas include using Starship to send a probe into orbit around Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, a difficult task without substantial lifting capacity. “It is extremely difficult because of both getting into orbit and protecting yourself from the severe radiation from Jupiter,” explains Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona. “But the masses help these things. You can have a lot of fuel and radiation protection.

Musk has suggested SpaceX could launch up to a dozen Starship test flights in 2022, with missions to the Moon and Mars on the horizon – and plenty of scientific potential to get started. “Once Starship starts flying, development will be very rapid,” said Margarita Marinova, former senior Mars development engineer at SpaceX. “There will be so many more people who can fly things. These can be anything from stand-alone missions using Starship to conduct missions on the existing flight manifesto. “When you have a capacity of 100 tonnes, adding science equipment is quite easy,” says Marinova. “If someone wants to buy payload space, they can have payload space. It will be a really drastic change in the way we do science. “

There are of course very good reasons to be careful. While Starship has performed test flights without the Super Heavy booster, we have yet to see the full rocket launch. It is an extremely massive and complex machine that could still encounter problems in its development. SpaceX and Musk, too, have previously been notoriously cavalier (to put it politely) with deadlines and goals (a proposed Mars mission, Red Dragon, was said to have been launched as early as 2018). And the method proposed by Starship to reach the moon and Mars, based on multiple earth orbit refueling missions, remains complex and untested.

Still, there are also plenty of reasons to be excited about what Starship might do if it succeeds. From the inner solar system to the outer solar system, and possibly beyond, it just might usher in a whole new era of space science. “I’m sure some very smart people are starting to think about sending science missions to Starship,” says Abhishek Tripathi, a space scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Or as Musk put it, “It really is all you can imagine.”


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