SpaceX Starship

Summary

Starship
SpaceX Starship SN8 launch as viewed from South Padre Island.jpg
SpaceX Starship SN8 prototype during a flight test at Boca Chica, Texas, December 2020
Function
ManufacturerSpaceX
Country of originUnited States
Cost per launchUS$2 million (aspirational)[2]
Size
Height120 m (390 ft)[3][4] (not including landing legs)
Diameter9 m (30 ft)[3]
Mass5,000 t (11,000,000 lb) (with maximum payload)(estimated)[3][4]
Stages2
Capacity
Payload to LEO
Mass+100 t (220,000 lb)[3]
Volume1,100 m3 (39,000 cu ft)[3]
Payload to GTO
Mass21 t (46,000 lb) (Without refuelling)[3]
Associated rockets
FamilySpaceX launch vehicles
Comparable
Launch history
StatusIn development
Launch sites
First stage – Super Heavy
Length72 m (236 ft)[4][3] (including landing legs)
Diameter9 m (30 ft)[3]
Propellant mass3,400 t (7,500,000 lb)[3]
Engines~28 Raptor[5]
Thrustc. 76,000 kN (17,000,000 lbf)[6]
Specific impulse330 s (3.2 km/s)[7]
FuelSubcooled CH
4
 / LOX[3]
Second stage – Starship
Length50 m (160 ft)[3]
Diameter9 m (30 ft)[3]
Empty mass(goal) 120 t (260,000 lb)[8]
Gross mass1,320 t (2,910,000 lb)[8]
Propellant mass1,200 t (2,600,000 lb)[3]
Engines6 Raptor[3]
Thrustc. 12,000 kN (2,700,000 lbf)[3]
Specific impulse380 s (3.7 km/s) (vacuum)[9]
FuelSubcooled CH
4
 / LOX[3]

The Starship system is a fully reusable, two‑stage‑to‑orbit super heavy‑lift launch vehicle under development by SpaceX. The system is composed of a booster stage, named Super Heavy, and a second stage, also referred to as "Starship". The second stage is being designed as a long‑duration cargo and passenger‑carrying spacecraft. The spacecraft will serve as both the second stage and the in‑space long‑duration orbital spaceship.

Engine development started in 2012, and Starship development began in 2016 as a self‑funded private spaceflight project. Testing of the second stage Starship began in 2019 as part of an extensive development program to prove out launch‑and‑landing and iterate on a variety of design details, particularly with respect to the vehicle's atmospheric reentry. The first prototypes made low‑altitude, low‑velocity flight testing of vertical launches and landings in 2019‑2020. On 9 December 2020, Starship prototype SN8 performed the first high‑altitude test flight, demonstrating most of the atmospheric re‑entry maneuvers. The test was deemed a success, although a hard landing caused the explosion of the prototype. More prototype Starships have been built and more are under construction as the iterative design progresses. All test articles have a 9 m (30 ft)‑diameter stainless steel hull.

In June 2019, SpaceX indicated they could potentially launch commercial payloads using Starship as early as 2021. In April 2020, NASA selected a modified crew‑rated Starship system as one of three potential lunar landing system design concepts to receive funding for a 10‑month‑long initial design phase for the NASA Artemis program. As of March 2021, SpaceX is conducting atmospheric flights to 10 km altitude with Starship prototypes. As of April 2021, Starship has been chosen by NASA to land humans back on the Moon.[10]

Nomenclature

The name of the vehicle changed many times after its first announcement and during the first several years of development.[11] At least as early as 2005, SpaceX used the codename, "BFR", for a conceptual heavy‑lift vehicle, "far larger than the Falcon family of vehicles",[12][13] with a goal of 100 t (110 tons) to orbit. Beginning in mid‑2013, SpaceX referred to both the mission architecture and the vehicle as the Mars Colonial Transporter.[14] By the time a large 12‑meter diameter design concept was unveiled in September 2016, SpaceX had begun referring to the overall system as the Interplanetary Transport System.

With the announcement of a new 9‑meter design in September 2017, SpaceX resumed referring to the vehicle as "BFR",[15][16][17] with Musk stating "we are searching for the right name, but the code name, at least, is BFR".[7] SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell subsequently stated that BFR stands for "Big Falcon Rocket".[18] However, Elon Musk had explained in the past that although BFR is the official name, he drew inspiration from the BFG weapon in the Doom video games.[19] The BFR had also occasionally been referred to informally by the media and internally at SpaceX as "Big Fucking Rocket".[20][21][22] At the time, the second stage/spacecraft was referred to as "BFS" (Big Falcon Ship or Big Fucking Ship).[23][24] The booster first stage was also at times referred to as the "BFR" (Big Falcon Rocket or Big Fucking Rocket).[25][26][27]

In November 2018, the spaceship was renamed Starship, and the first stage booster was named Super Heavy.[28][29] The whole system, with the booster stage and spaceship, is also referred to as "Starship".[30]:16:20–16:48 The combination of Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy booster is called the "Starship system" by SpaceX in their payload users guide.[31] The term "Super Heavy" had also been previously used by SpaceX in a different context. In February 2018, at about the time of the first Falcon Heavy launch, Musk had suggested the possibility of a Falcon Super Heavy—a Falcon Heavy with extra boosters.[32]

History

Early concepts

The launch vehicle was initially mentioned in public discussions by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in 2012 as part of a description of the company's overall Mars system architecture, then known as "Mars Colonial Transporter" (MCT).[33] By August 2014, media sources speculated that the initial flight test of the Raptor‑driven super‑heavy launch vehicle could occur as early as 2020, in order to fully test the engines under orbital spaceflight conditions; however, any colonization effort was then reported to continue to be "deep into the future".[34]

In mid‑September 2016, Musk noted that the Mars Colonial Transporter name would not continue, as the system would be able to "go well beyond Mars", and that a new name would be needed. The name selected was "Interplanetary Transport System" (ITS).[35] In September 2017, at the 68th annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, SpaceX unveiled an updated vehicle design.[7]

In September 2018 Musk showed another redesigned concept for the second stage and spaceship with three rear fins and two front canard fins added for atmospheric entry, replacing the previous delta wing and split flaps shown a year earlier.[36] He also announced a planned 2023 lunar circumnavigation mission, a private spaceflight called dearMoon project.[37] The two major parts of the launch vehicle were given descriptive names in November 2018: "Starship" for the upper stage and "Super Heavy" for the booster stage, which Musk pointed out was "needed to escape Earth's deep gravity well (not needed for other planets or moons)".[28]

Shift to stainless steel and early testing

In January 2019, Musk announced that Starship would no longer be constructed out of carbon fiber, and that stainless steel would be used instead, citing several reasons including cost, strength, and ease of production.[38] Later in May, the Starship design changed back to just six Raptor engines, with three optimized for sea‑level and three optimized for vacuum.[39] Later that month, an initial test article, Starhopper, was being finished for untethered flight tests at the SpaceX South Texas launch site, while two "orbital prototypes" without aerodynamic control surfaces were under construction, one in South Texas and one on the Florida Space Coast. The following month, SpaceX publicly announced that discussions had begun with three telecommunications companies for using Starship, rather than Falcon 9, for launching commercial satellites for paying customers in 2021. No specific companies or launch contracts were announced at that time.[40]

Starhopper made its initial flight test in July 2019, a "hop" of around 20 m (66 ft) altitude,[41] and a second and final "hop" in August 2019, reached an altitude of around 150 m (490 ft)[42] and landing around 100 m (330 ft) from the launchpad. In September 2019 Musk unveiled Starship Mk1, a more advanced test article.[43][44] The Mk1 was destroyed in a tank pressure test in November, and SpaceX ceased construction on the Mk2 prototype in Florida and moved on to work on the Mk3 article.[45]

Adopting a new "serial number" nomenclature, the Mk3 article was renamed Starship SN1 by SpaceX to signify the major evolution in building techniques, the rings were now taller and each was made of one single sheet of steel, drastically reducing the failure points in welding lines. The worksite in Texas was also significantly expanded. In February 2020, SN1 was also destroyed during pressurization.[46] The company then focused on resolving the problem that led to SN1's failure by assembling a stripped‑down version of their next planned prototype, SN2; SN2 ended up being basically a test tank.[47][48] This time the pressure test was successful and SpaceX began work on SN3.[49][48] However, in April 2020, SN3 was also destroyed during testing due to a test configuration error.[48][50] At that time, construction of SN4 was underway.[50]

Prototypes testing

On 26 April 2020, Starship SN4 became the first full‑scale prototype to pass a cryogenic proof test. On 5 May 2020, SN4 completed a single engine static fire with one mounted Raptor engine and became the first full Starship tank to pass a Raptor static fire.[51] SN4 would complete a total of 4 short static fires (2 to 5 seconds long) before being destroyed in a massive explosion due to a propellant leak from the quick disconnect mechanism.[52] On 4 August 2020 Starship SN5 completed a 150 meter flight test, landing at an adjacent landing site, thus becoming the first full‑scale prototype to perform a successful flight test.[53]

Musk declared in June 2020 that Starship was by then the top SpaceX priority, except for anything related to reduction of Crew Dragon return risk for the upcoming Crew Dragon Demo‑2 flight to the ISS,[54] and remained so in September 2020.[1] In September 2020, Musk clarified that SpaceX intends to exclusively fly cargo transport missions initially, and that passenger flights would come only much later.[5][1]

In July 2020, SpaceX procured two deepwater oil rigs from Valaris plc for $3.5 million each. These semi‑submersible platforms, renamed Deimos and Phobos after the two moons of Mars, will be modified into two floating launch platforms for Super Heavy/Starship orbital launches. As of January 2021, refit is underway on Deimos at the Port of Brownsville, and Phobos at the Port of Galveston.[55][56] Current plans are for both the first stage (Super Heavy) booster and the second stage (Starship) to be landed on land, unlike the many sea landings seen with their Falcon 9 boosters.[57]

On 9 December 2020, SN8 flew a largely successful 12.5 km (41,000 ft) flight test, which included the first 3‑engine flight test, the first test of the body flaps during its novel "bellyflop" descent, and the first test of the "flip maneuver" landing burn at the end of the free‑fall phase.[58] However the fuel header tank pressure was low during the landing burn, and SN8 landed at a higher speed than intended and exploded.[59] On 2 February 2021, SN9 attempted a 10 km (33,000 ft) flight, but once again exploded on landing after one of the Raptor engines failed to ignite.[60]

On 3 March 2021, SN10 completed the first intact landing of Starship after a 10km ascent. However, the landing was harder than expected due to unexpected low thrust.[61] Immediately after the landing, there was a fire visible near the vehicle's skirt, prompting the deployment of the landing site's fire suppression system. Approximately eight minutes after the landing, the vehicle's liquid oxygen and methane tanks ruptured catastrophically, resulting in the fiery explosion of SN10 on the landing pad before it could be made safe and recovered. [62]

Starship upper stage

Artist's concept of the 2018 version of Starship upper stage following stage separation

The upper stage of Starship is intended to function both as a second stage to reach orbital velocity on launches from Earth, and also be used in outer space as an on‑orbit long‑duration spacecraft. This is in contrast to most previous launch vehicle and spacecraft designs. Starship is being designed to be capable of reentering Earth's atmosphere from orbital velocities and landing vertically, with a design goal of rapid re‑usability without the need for extensive refurbishment.[63]

According to Musk, when Starship is used for beyond Earth orbit (BEO) launches to Mars, the functioning of the overall expedition system will necessarily include propellant production on the Mars surface. This is necessary for the return trip and to reuse the spaceship to keep costs as low as possible. Lunar destinations (circumlunar flybys, orbits and landings) will be possible without lunar‑propellant depots, so long as the spaceship is refueled in a high‑elliptical orbit before the lunar transit begins.[64] Some lunar flybys will be possible without orbital refueling as evidenced by the mission profile of the dearMoon project.[9]

The SpaceX approach is to tackle the hardest problems first, and Musk sees the hardest problem for getting to sustainable human civilization on Mars to be building a fully‑reusable orbital Starship, so that is the major focus of SpaceX resources as of 2020.[65] For example, it is planned for the spacecraft to eventually incorporate life support systems, but as of September 2019, Musk has stated that it is yet to be developed, as the early flights will all be cargo only.[1]

General characteristics

As of September 2019, the Starship upper stage is expected to be a 9 m (30 ft) diameter, 50 m (160 ft) tall, fully reusable spacecraft with a dry mass of 120 t (120 long tons; 130 short tons) or less,[63] powered by six Raptor engines.

Starship is designed with the ability to re‑enter Earth's atmosphere and retropropulsively land on a designated landing pad. Landing reliability is projected by SpaceX to ultimately be able to achieve "airline levels" of safety due to engine‑out capability. The spacecraft is also designed to be able to perform automatic rendezvous and docking operations, and perform on‑orbit propellant transfers between Starships.[66]

Starship is also designed with the goal to reach other planets and moons in the solar system after on‑orbit propellant loading. While retropropulsion is intended to be used for the final landing maneuver on the Earth, Moon, or Mars, 99.9% of the energy dissipation on Earth reentry is to be removed aerodynamically, and on Mars, 99% aerodynamically even using the much thinner Martian atmosphere,[67] where "body flaps"[58][68] are used to control attitude during descent and optimize both trajectory and energy dissipation during descent.[3]

As envisioned in the 2017 design unveiling, the Starship is to have a pressurized volume of approximately 825 m3 (29,100 cu ft), which could be configured for up to 40 cabins, large common areas, central storage, a galley, and a solar flare shelter for Mars missions.[24]

Propulsion

The methane/oxygen‑propellant Raptor engines will be the main propulsion system on Starship. Starship will use three sea‑level optimized Raptor engines and three vacuum‑optimized Raptor engines. The sea‑level engines are identical to the engines on the Super Heavy booster. Transport use in space is expected to use a vacuum‑optimized Raptor engine variant to optimize specific impulse (Isp) to approximately 380 s (8,300 mph; 3.7 km/s).[63] Total Starship thrust will be approximately 11,500 kN (2,600,000 lbf).[69]

Starship will use pressure fed hot gas reaction control system (RCS) thrusters using methane gas for attitude control, including the final pre‑landing pitch‑up maneuver from belly flop to tail down, and stability during high‑wind landings up to 60 km/h (37 mph).[70][71] Initial prototypes are using nitrogen cold gas thrusters, which are substantially less mass efficient, but are expedient for quick building to support early prototype flight testing.[63]

Variants

Starship is planned to eventually be built in at least these operational variants:[64][72]

  • Spaceship: a large, long‑duration spacecraft capable of carrying passengers or cargo to interplanetary destinations, to LEO, or Earth‑to‑Earth spaceflight.[64]
  • Satellite delivery spacecraft: a vehicle able to transport and place spacecraft into orbit,[40] or handle the in‑space recovery of spacecraft and space debris for return to Earth or movement to another orbit. In the March 2020 users guide, this was shown with a large cargo bay door that can open in space to facilitate delivery and pickup of cargo.[64]
  • Tanker: a cargo‑only propellant tanker to support the refilling of propellants in Earth orbit. The tanker will enable launching a heavy spacecraft to interplanetary space as the spacecraft being refueled can use its tanks twice, first to reach LEO and afterwards to leave Earth orbit. The tanker variant, also required for high‑payload lunar flights, is expected to come only later; initial in‑space propellant transfer will be from one standard Starship to another.[66]
  • Lunar‑surface‑to‑orbit transport: a variant of Starship without airbrakes or heat shielding that is required for in‑atmosphere‑operations. Additionally, the spacecraft will be equipped with a docking port on the nose, additional landing engines (installed much higher up to reduce dust clouds during landing) and have white paint (as opposed to the bare steel planned for regular Starships). In April 2021, NASA selected the Starship HLS variant to be a human‑rated lunar lander for the Artemis program, and contracted for two operational Moon missions, with a human lunar landing occurring on the second one, as early as 2025.[73]

The spaceship design is expected to be flexible. For example, a possible modification to the base Starship would have only an expendable three‑engine Starship with no fairing, rear fins, or landing legs, in order to optimize its mass ratio for interplanetary exploration with robotic probes.[74]

Materials and construction

Starship has a stainless steel structure and tank construction. Its strength‑to‑mass ratio should be comparable to or better than the earlier SpaceX design alternative of carbon fiber composites across the anticipated temperature ranges, from the low temperatures of cryogenic propellants to the high temperatures of atmospheric reentry[75] Some parts of the craft will be built with a stainless steel alloy that "has undergone [a type of] cryogenic treatment, in which metals are "... cold‑formed/worked [to produce a] cryo‑treated steel ..." dramatically lighter and more wear‑resistant than traditional hot‑rolled steel."[75]

The spacecraft will also have a thermal protection system against the harsh conditions of atmospheric reentry. This will include hexagonal ceramic tiles that will be used on the windward side of Starship.[76][77][78] Earlier designs included a double stainless‑steel skin with active coolant flowing in between the two layers, or with some areas additionally containing multiple small pores that would allow for transpiration cooling.[77][79][80][81][82]

Starship Human Landing System

A modified version known as the Starship HLS (Starship Human Landing System) was selected by NASA in April 2021 for use for long‑duration crewed lunar landings as part of NASA's Artemis program. This followed a three-team competition begun in April 2020 to develop human-capable lunar landing systems.[83] The Starship HLS variant is being designed to stay on and around the Moon hence both the heat shield and air‑brakes—integral parts of the main Starship design—are not included in the Starship HLS design. The variant will use high‑thrust methox RCS thrusters located mid‑body on Starship HLS during the final "tens of meters" of the terminal lunar descent and landing,[84][85] and will also include a smaller crew area and a much larger cargo bay. It will be powered by a solar array located on its nose below the docking port. SpaceX intends to use the same high‑thrust RCS thrusters for liftoff from the lunar surface.[84]:50:30 The HLS variant will be launched to Earth orbit via the Super Heavy booster and use orbital refueling to reload propellants into Starship HLS for the lunar transit and lunar landing operations. In the 2020 mission concept, and still in the April 2021 Starship selection announcement, a NASA Orion spacecraft is planned by NASA to carry the NASA crew to the lander in lunar orbit where they would depart and descend to the surface in Starship HLS. After Lunar surface operations, it would ascend using the same Starship HLS vehicle and return the crew to the Orion. Although not confirmed yet, the vehicle in theory could be refueled in orbit to carry more crews and cargo to the surface.[86][87]

SpaceX was one of three teams developing company-specific lunar lander designs for the Artemis program over a year-long[88] period in 2020–2021, starting in May 2020.[88] The other teams considered were Dynetics, including SNC and other unspecified companies, and the 'National Team'—led by Blue Origin but including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.[87][86]

On 16 April 2021, NASA selected Starship HLS for crewed lunar lander development[89] plus two lunar demonstration flights — one uncrewed and one crewed — no earlier than 2024. The contract is valued at US$2.89 billion over a number of years.[73][90] Two NASA Artemis astronauts are to land on the second Starship HLS landing.[91] NASA had previously stated it wanted multiple dissimilar Human Landing Systems; however, "only one design was selected for an initial uncrewed demonstration and the first crewed landing, due to significant budget constraints." NASA has indicated that the proposers who were not selected are free to compete for later missions that are not a part of the initial two demonstration flights that were contracted to SpaceX in the initial $2.9 billion contract.[90]

Starship HLS will have the following design characteristics:[90]

  • 24 midbody methox thrusters for use in landing on the lunar surface
  • 100-day loiter capability in lunar orbit
  • lunar upmass and downmass that far exceed NASA requirements
  • support for a greater number of EVAs on the lunar surface than the minimum required by NASA
  • excess-propellant margin can be applied to expedite an emergency ascent from the Moon
  • a need to refuel in LEO. Current plans are that a propellant tanker in low-Earth orbit would be fueled by multiple Starship propellant delivery flights prior to Starship HLS launching to refuel from the tanker before it departs to the Moon.

Prototypes and testing

The SpaceX testing philosophy, referred to as "test, fly, fail, fix, repeat", is evident in the Starship development and testing program. SpaceX is willing to regularly test prototypes to destruction, counting the data gathered as a successful part of the overall process. This allowance for failures, willingness to build flight articles in view of the public, and fast cadence of prototype construction makes the Starship design process unique in the spaceflight industry.[92]

In the first two years of development, from December 2018 to December 2020, SpaceX built and tested 13 (12 if the unfinished MK4 is not counted) prototypes. These include MK4 whose development was suspended mid‑construction; MK1, SN1, SN3, SN4, SN7 (test tank), SN7.1 (test tank) and SN8 which were tested to destruction; MK2 and SN2 (test tank) which were retired before flight; Starhopper, SN5 and SN6 which were flight tested and retired.[93] In 2021 SpaceX has continued building and testing prototypes including SN7.2 (test tank) and SN9 with SN10.[94][60]

Starting with SN15, a revised Starship design incorporating numerous improvements over the SN8-11 set of prototypes was introduced.[95] These will continue to be utilised for sub-orbital test flights of increasing altitude. The first flight of a Starship prototype to orbit is not foreseen before the development of a further design batch beginning with SN20[96] as orbital flight will require another increase in capability associated with thermal control protection, navigation, etc.


Starhopper

Starhopper before test flight

The construction of the initial test article—the Starship Hopper[97] or Starhopper[98][99]—began in early December 2018 and the external frame and skin was complete by 10 January 2019. Constructed outside in the open on a SpaceX property just 3.2 km (2.0 mi) from Boca Chica Beach in South Texas, the external body of the rocket rapidly came together in less than six weeks from half‑inch (12.5 mm) steel.[100] Originally thought by onlookers at the SpaceX South Texas Launch Site to be the initial construction of a large water tower, the stainless steel vehicle was built by welders and construction workers in more of a shipyard form of construction than traditional aerospace manufacturing. The full Starhopper vehicle is 9 m (30 ft) in diameter and was originally 39 m (128 ft) tall in January 2019.[75][101] Subsequent wind damage to the nose cone of the vehicle resulted in a SpaceX decision to scrap the nose section, and fly the low‑velocity hopper tests with no nose cone, resulting in an 18 m (59 ft) tall test vehicle.[102]

The low‑altitude, low‑velocity Starhopper was used for initial integrated testing of the Raptor rocket engine with a flight‑capable propellant structure, and was slated to also test the newly designed autogenous pressurization system that is replacing traditional helium tank pressurization as well as initial launch and landing algorithms for the much larger 9-metre (30 ft) diameter rocket.[79] SpaceX originally developed their reusable booster technology for the 3‑meter‑diameter Falcon 9 from 2012 to 2018. The Starhopper prototype was also the platform for the first flight tests of the full‑flow staged combustion methalox Raptor engine.[103] Only one engine was installed but Starhopper could have been fitted with up to three engines to facilitate engine‑out tolerance testing.[79] Starhopper was also used to flight test a number of subsystems of Starship to begin to expand the flight envelope of the Starship design.[101][104][105] Starhopper testing ran from March to August 2019 with all Starhopper test flights at low altitude.[106][107]

The maiden flight test of the Starhopper test vehicle, and also the maiden flight test of any full‑flow staged combustion rocket engine, was on 25 July 2019, and attained a height of 18 m (59 ft).[103][108] This was not a full‑duration burn but a 22‑second test. SpaceX is developing their next‑generation rocket to be reusable from the beginning, just like an aircraft, and thus needs to start with narrow flight test objectives, while still aiming to land the rocket successfully to be used subsequently in further tests to expand the flight envelope.[103] The second and final untethered test flight of the Starhopper test article was carried out on 27 August 2019, to a VTVL altitude of 150 m (490 ft).[109]

Low‑altitude prototypes

SN5 being moved by a crane onto a stand before test flight

Construction of the Mark 1 (Mk1) in Boca Chica, Texas and Mark 2 (Mk2) in Cocoa, Florida began in December 2018.[110][111] Planned for high‑altitude and high‑velocity testing,[112] the prototypes were described to be taller than the Starhopper, have thinner skins, and a smoothly curving nose section.[110][113] Like Starhopper, the vehicles measured 9 m (30 ft) in diameter but were full‑height at approximately 50 m (160 ft), making them the first full‑size Starship prototypes.[114] On 20 November 2019, the Starship Mk1 was partially destroyed during max pressure tank testing, when the forward LOX tank ruptured along a weld line of the craft's steel structure, propelling the bulkhead several meters upwards. The upper bulkhead went airborne and landed some distance away from the craft. No injuries were reported.[115] After the incident, SpaceX decided not to repair and retest Mk1. Both Mk1 and Mk2 were retired and focus turned to the Mk3 and Mk4 builds which were designed for orbit.[116][117]

The prototype in Texas (Mk3) was renamed to SN1 (serial number 1). It was destroyed in February 2020 during a pressure test when the tank ruptured near the thrust puck.[118] The thrust puck serves as both the lower dome of the fuel tank and the mount for the Raptor engines. After this incident, SpaceX built SN2 as a scaled down test tank to focus testing on the structure of the thrust puck. SN2 successfully passed the pressure and cryogenic tests proving the design changes.[93] SpaceX returned to full size prototype testing with SN3 which failed the cryogenic proof test. During testing the LOX (Liquid Oxygen) Tank experienced a loss of pressure and collapsed due to bad commanding in the test sequence.[119] SN4 successfully completed a cryogenic pressure test on 26 April 2020.[120] but exploded a few weeks later after a successful engine test when SpaceX tested a new "quick disconnect" design as part of ground support equipment testing. After passing all pad tests, SN5 completed a 150 m hop on 4 August 2020, descending to a nearby landing pad. This marked the first successful launch and landing of a prototype with full‑height propellant tanks.[121][122] SN6 performed the same flight test plan just one month later.[123]

High‑altitude prototypes

Starship SN9 sitting on the launch pad awaiting its test flight

High‑altitude prototypes include installation of the nose cone and aerodynamic surfaces allowing testing of ascent, controlled engine cutoff, vehicle reorientation, controlled descent, the flip maneuver and landing.[58]

SN8 was the first high‑altitude prototype to perform a test flight. On 9 December 2020, SN8 launched and ascended to an altitude of 12.5 km (41,000 ft). During ascent, the three Raptor engines were cut one by one allowing the rocket to perform a successful and novel skydiver‑like horizontal descent. As the vehicle neared the ground, it used a combination of aerodynamic surfaces and engine gimbaling to rotate back to a vertical position for a propulsive landing attempt. Lower than expected pressure in the methane header tank following the rapid rotation caused inadequate final deceleration and a hard landing resulted in an explosion on the landing pad and total destruction of the test vehicle.[124]

SN9 and SN10 both followed the same general test flight plan. SN9's flight took it to 10 km (33,000 ft), on 2 February 2021. The flight went well up until the landing, where one of the Raptor engines did not relight causing a failure to counteract the momentum of the landing flip maneuver. This failure caused SN9 to slam into the ground diagonally and explode.[60] SN10 performed the same test profile, but used all three engines for the final flip maneuver successfully decelerating enough to land intact. Several minutes after the landing the Starship exploded and was tossed in the air, before slamming down on its side on the landing pad.[125] SpaceX CEO Elon Musk later revealed that the single Raptor engine that was used for the final landing burn couldn't reach high thrust despite being commanded to do so, thus SN10's landing was harder than intended. The cause of the low thrust is probably due to partial helium ingestion from the fuel header tank.[126]

SN11 was launched to 10 km on 30 March 2021, as heavy fog covered the launch site. Telemetry was lost about 5 minutes and 49 seconds after launch as the vehicle disintegrated during its landing attempt.[127] The explosion was caused by a methane leak in one of the Raptor engines, which led to a malfunction when it attempted to relight for the landing burn.[128]

Testing program

Starship prototypes are subjected to several tests on the launch stand before flight testing. These include the ambient-temperature pressure test, cryogenic proof test, and static fire of the engines. During the ambient-temperature pressure test the test article's propellant tanks are filled with benign air‑temperature nitrogen gas. This test checks for leaks, verifies basic vehicle valve and plumbing performance, and ensure a basic level of structural integrity.[129] The ambient-temperature pressure test is followed by the cryogenic proof test where the vehicle's oxygen and methane tanks are loaded with liquid nitrogen. This also tests structural integrity but adds the challenge of thermal stresses to ensure that Starship can safely load, hold, and offload supercool liquids.[129] SN9 was the first prototype to arrive at the test stand with engines already installed.[129] For previous test articles with thrust structures, a hydraulic ram was attached to the thrust puck to simulate the thrust of one, two, or three Raptor engines.[130] SN4 was the first full scale prototype to pass the cryogenic proof test.[131] Finally a static fire test is performed by loading liquid oxygen and liquid methane and firing the Raptor engines briefly while Starship is held down on the test stand.

Seven prototype Starship vehicles, each with different vehicle configurations, have flown eight suborbital test flights in the period July 2019 to March 2021. SpaceX testing is proprietary, and the company does not release a detailed set of test objectives for their vehicle development test flights. All test flights have been launched from the SpaceX South Texas launch site at Boca Chica.[132]

Flight
No.
Date and time
(UTC)
Vehicle Launch site Flight apogee Duration
- 3 April 2019 Starhopper Ground Pad, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas ~0.2 m (1 ft) ~3 seconds
The first firing of Starhopper and the first tethered hop (according to Musk[133][79]). The firing was a few seconds in duration and the vehicle was tethered to the ground. The vehicle might have lifted off the ground, but only to the height of few inches, and it was not possible to see the lift off in public video recordings of the test.[79][134]
- 5 April 2019 Starhopper Ground Pad, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas ~1 m (3 ft) ~5 seconds
Tethered hop which hit tether limits. Used a single Raptor SN2 engine.[102]
1 25 July 2019[135] Starhopper Ground Pad, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas 20 m (66 ft)[103] ~22 seconds
First free (untethered) flight test. Single Raptor engine, SN6.
2 27 August 2019 22:00[136][137] Starhopper Ground Pad, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas 150 m (490 ft)[136] ~1 minute[138]
Single Raptor engine, SN6. Starhopper was retired after this launch, with some parts being reused for other tests.[136][139][140]
3 4 August 2020 23:57[141][53] Starship SN5 Suborbital Pad A, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas 150 m (490 ft)[141] ~45 seconds
Single Raptor engine, SN27.[142] A successful 150-meter flight was completed on 4 August 2020.[143]
4 3 September 2020 17:47[144] Starship SN6 Suborbital Pad A, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas 150 m (490 ft)[145] ~45 seconds
Single Raptor engine, SN29.[144] A successful test hop took place on 3 September 2020.[144]
5 9 December 2020[146] 22:45 Starship SN8 Suborbital Pad A, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas 12.5 km (41,000 ft)[147] 6 minutes, 42 seconds
Three Raptor engines, SN30, SN36, and SN42.[148] The vehicle successfully launched, ascended, performed the skydive descent maneuver, relit the engines fueled by the header tanks, and steered to the landing pad.[147] The flip maneuver from horizontal descent to vertical was successful. Low pressure in the fuel header tank as a result of the flip maneuver caused engine issues and insufficient retropropulsive deceleration, resulting in a hard landing and destruction of SN8.[147]
6 2 February 2021[149] 20:25 Starship SN9 Suborbital Pad B, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas 10 km (33,000 ft)[150][149][151] 6 minutes, 26 seconds[151]
Three Raptor engines, including SN45 and SN49.[151][152][153][154] A hard landing destroyed SN9.[155] The cause of the crash was one of the engines not relighting due to an issue with the oxygen preburner.
7 3 March 2021[156][157] 23:15 Starship SN10 Suborbital Pad A, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas 10 km (33,000 ft)[62] 6 minutes, 24 seconds[158][i]
SN10 experienced a hard landing with a slight lean and a fire near the base,[161] and then exploded eight minutes after landing.[62] The thrust was too low causing the legs & part of the skirt to get crushed. The cause was probably due to partial helium ingestion from the fuel header tank.[159]
8 30 March 2021 13:00[162] Starship SN11 Suborbital Pad B, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas 10 km (33,000 ft)[163] ~6 minutes[162]
SN11 launched in heavy fog, and had engine issues during ascent according to Elon Musk.[164] Telemetry was lost midair at T+5:49, shortly after engine re-ignition to perform landing procedures.[165][failed verification] Debris was then seen impacting the ground.[166] Elon Musk stated that a small methane leak caused a fire on one of the Raptor engines which then eventually fried the avionics of the Raptor.[167]
9 NET 23 April 2021[168] Starship SN15 Suborbital Pad A, Starbase, Boca Chica, Texas TBA ("high altitude") TBD
SN15 is a new iteration of prototype Starship with many upgrades over previous vehicles.[169] The test objectives will be to ascend to altitude, maintain attitude control during maneuvers, descend, and perform a successful landing. SN15 was transported to the launch site on 8 April to prepare for a suborbital test launch planned later in the month. On 12 April SN15 performed its first cryogenic proof test.
  1. ^ Despite making an intact landing and beginning the detanking procedures, the vehicle suffered an explosion several minutes later destroying the vehicle in the process. SpaceX called it a successful landing but later acknowledged a problem with lower-than-expected engine thrust causing a hard landing[159] way past leg loads[160] and the vehicle exploded.[157]

Super Heavy booster

Comparison of super heavy‑lift launch vehicles. Masses listed are the maximum payload to low Earth orbit in metric tons.

The booster stage Super Heavy is expected to be 72 m (236 ft) long and 9 m (30 ft) in diameter. It is to be constructed of stainless steel tanks and structure, holding subcooled liquid methane and liquid oxygen (CH
4
/LOX) propellants, powered by 28 Raptor rocket engines[170][171] that will provide 72,000 kN (16,000,000 lbf) total liftoff thrust.[172][3] The specification propellant capacity of Super Heavy was shown as 3,400 t (7,500,000 lb) in May 2020,[3] 3% more than in the earlier high-level design as of September 2019.[3]

The initial prototype Super Heavy will be full size.[173] It is expected however, to initially fly with less than the full complement of 28[174] engines.[175]

The Super Heavy external design changed throughout 2019/2020 as the detailed design was iterated and the Raptor engines were tested and achieved higher power levels. In September 2019, a design change for the booster stage to have six fins that serve exclusively[63]:26:25–28:35 as fairings to cover the six landing legs, and four diamond‑shaped welded steel grid fins[176] to provide aerodynamic control on descent, was discussed.[177] In August 2020, as the first build of "booster prototype 1" was to get underway,[5] Musk noted that the leg design had been modified to just four landing legs and fins, to improve supersonic engine plume re‑circulation margins.[178]

Landing

In September 2016, Elon Musk described the possibility of landing the ITS booster on the launch mount.[179] He re‑described this concept in September 2017 with the Big Falcon Booster (BFB).[180][64][181][24] In 2019, Musk announced that the booster would initially have landing legs to support the early VTVL development testing of Super Heavy.[182][183][184] More recently, Musk had again expressed the long term goal of landing on the launch mount.[185] In December 2020, Musk added the possibility of catching the booster by the grid fins using the launch tower arm, eliminating the need for landing legs entirely and simplifying recovery processes.[186][185][187]

Prototypes

In late 2020, the segments of the first booster, codenamed BN1 were observed at Boca Chica.[188] In March 2021, Elon Musk indicated he was hopeful that the first orbital flight could be made as early as July 2021.[189] The two segments of BN1 were stacked together in the High Bay for the first time on 18 March 2021.[190] The first booster is a production pathfinder and will also help develop transport processes from the Boca Chica build area to the launch/landing area.[191]

Intended uses

Orbital launches

Starship is intended to become the primary SpaceX orbital vehicle. SpaceX intends to eventually replace its existing Falcon 9 and SpaceX Dragon 2 fleet with Starship, which is expected to take cargo to orbit at far lower cost than any other existing launch vehicle.[192][64][7]:24:50–27:05 In November 2019, Elon Musk estimated that fuel will cost US$900,000 per launch and total launch costs could drop as low as US$2 million.[193]

In addition to the commercial launch market that SpaceX has been servicing since 2013, the company intends to use Starship to launch the largest portion of its own internet satellite constellation, Starlink, with more than 12,000 satellites intended to be launched by 2026, more than six times the total number of active satellites on orbit in 2018.[194] An orbital launch of Starship could place ~400 Starlink satellites into orbit with a single launch, whereas the Falcon 9 flights in 2019‑2020 can launch only ~60.[1]

Other space missions

Starship is an architecture designed to do many diverse spaceflight missions, principally due to the very low marginal cost per mission that the fully‑reusable spaceflight vehicles bring to spaceflight technology that were absent in the first six decades after humans put technology into space.[30]:30:10–31:30 Specifically, in addition to orbital launches, Starship is designed to be used for:[192][180]

  • Long‑duration spaceflights to outer space, beyond the earth‑moon system.
  • Sending crew such as space tourists to the International Space Station, the Lunar Gateway, and other orbital installations.[195]
  • Mars transportation, as cargo and passenger transports.
  • Long‑duration flights to the outer planets of the Solar System, for cargo and astronauts.[196]
  • Reusable lunar lander "Starship Human Landing System" (Starship HLS), to transport astronauts and cargo to the Moon's surface and back to the Gateway in lunar orbit;[86] as well as more advanced heavy cargo lunar use cases that are envisioned by SpaceX but are not any part of the HLS variant that NASA has contracted with SpaceX for early design work.[30]:13:34–20:10

Long‑haul Earth transport

In 2017, SpaceX mentioned the theoretical possibility of using Starship to carry passengers on suborbital flights between two points on Earth. Any two points on Earth could be connected in under one hour, providing commercial long‑haul transport competing with long‑range aircraft.[197][198] SpaceX however announced no concrete plans to pursue the two stage "Earth‑to‑Earth" use case.[7][104][199]

Over two years later, in May 2019, Musk floated the idea of using single‑stage Starship to travel up to 10,000 km (6,200 mi) on Earth‑to‑Earth flights at speeds approaching Mach 20 (25,000 km/h; 15,000 mph) with an acceptable payload saying it "dramatically improves cost, complexity and ease of operations".[200] In June 2020, Musk estimated that Earth‑to‑Earth test flights could begin in "2 or 3 years", i.e. 2022 or 2023, and that planning was underway for "floating superheavy‑class spaceports for Mars, Moon and hypersonic travel around Earth".[201]

In April 2021, COO Gwynne Shotwell clarified that she believes SpaceX "will be flying large numbers of people on Starship in five years ... including point-to-point transportation between two locations on Earth".[202]

Funding

SpaceX has been developing the Starship system with private funding, including the Raptor rocket engine used on both stages of the vehicle, since 2012.[203] After 2016, SpaceX has contracted to supply specific development and operational work for the US government. These have included building a single custom-order prototype Raptor engine for the USAF in 2016-2018, and in 2020, NASA contracting for SpaceX to do a year of development work for a special modified Starship second stage that could be used for Lunar passenger and cargo transport from the NASA Lunar Gateway space station to the surface of the Moon and return. NASA also signed a contract in 2020 for a special in-space cryogenic propellant-transfer demonstration mission. None of these contracts were funding for the mainline development of the Starship system. In 2021, NASA also awarded two operational lunar flights to SpaceX using a special lunar variant of Starship called Starship HLS, as well as some[quantify] development funding to support lunar vehicle and engine development.[73]

The development work on the new two-stage launch vehicle design has been nearly entirely privately funded by SpaceX.[73] The entire project is possible only as a result of SpaceX's multi-faceted approach focusing on the reduction of launch costs.[204] However, the full build-out of the Mars colonization plans—after Starship initial development—was envisioned by Musk in 2016 to be ultimately funded by both private and public funds. The speed of commercially available Mars transport for both cargo and humans will be driven, in large part, by market demand as well as constrained by the technology development and development funding.

In 2016, Musk said that the company had no expectation of receiving NASA contracts for any of the development work SpaceX was doing. He also indicated then that such contracts, if received, would be good.[205] In January 2016 the US Air Force contracted with SpaceX US$33.7 million to develop a prototype Raptor engine for a methalox upper stage for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, with up to a further US$61.4 million available for additional USAF requirements. SpaceX has no plans to develop a methalox second stage for the Falcon launch vehicles, but the Air Force wanted this technology to be developed.[206]

In 2017, the company settled on a 9-meter diameter design and commenced procuring equipment for vehicle manufacturing operations. In late 2018, they switched the design from carbon composite materials for the main structures to stainless steel, but entirely done by ordinary company economic incentives to further lower build costs.[37] without requiring review by NASA or US government sources.

Beginning in 2019, SpaceX began to offer specific services to potential future customers using Starship/Super Heavy/Raptor technology, and such product offerings can result in revenue to the company from this line of technologies, even while development is continuing. In June 2019, SpaceX indicated they could potentially launch commercial payloads using Starship as early as 2021,[40] which often results in the recognition of revenue before a flight is launched. By late 2019, SpaceX projected that, with company private investment funding, including contractual funds from Yusaku Maezawa who has contracted for a private lunar mission, they had sufficient funds to advance the Earth‑orbit and lunar‑orbit extent of Starship flight operations, although they could choose to raise additional funds in order "to go to the Moon or landing on Mars".[203]

In April 2020, NASA announced they would pay SpaceX US$135 million for initial design work of a variation of the Starship second‑stage vehicle and spaceship—a "Starship Human Landing System", or Starship HLS—as one of three potential Lunar human landing systems for the NASA Artemis program[87][207] In October 2020, NASA awarded SpaceX US$53.2 million to conduct a large scale flight demonstration to transfer 10 metric tons of cryogenic propellant between the tanks of two Starship vehicles.[208]

On 16 April 2021, NASA selected SpaceX's Starship for the Artemis human landing system.[209] The contract is valued at US$2.89 billion over a number of years.[73][210]

Criticism

The Starship vehicle design has been criticized for not adequately protecting astronauts from ionizing radiation on Mars missions;[211][212][213][214] Musk has stated that he thinks the transit time to Mars will be too brief to lead to an increased risk of cancer, saying "it's not too big of a deal".[211][215][216] The lifetime cancer risk increase caused by the dose incurred on a multi‑year Mars mission has been estimated to amount to a 5% increase in total cancer risk, a number which can be greatly reduced through simple shielding measures.[217]

Critics have also attacked the Starship test campaign at the SpaceX South Texas launch site. Debris from launch explosions has traveled over five miles downwind, leading residents to argue that it damages the surrounding ecosystems.[218] Environmental activists accuse SpaceX of not adhering to the conditions outlined in their original Environmental Impact Statement, and have urged the Environmental Protection Agency to require an updated EIS.[219]

See also

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External links

  • Media related to SpaceX Starship at Wikimedia Commons
  • Official website