Elon Musk reveals Starship progress ahead of first orbital flight of Mars-bound craft

Tech mogul’s sci-fi dream of reaching the Red Planet gathers pace

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 28 May 2021 14:54
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SpaceX successfully lands Starship prototype rocket on 5 May

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SpaceX tycoon Elon Musk has shared a picture of his latest Starship prototype, the SN16, which is being readied for the project’s biggest test yet: the first orbital flight of a Mars-bound ship, due for blast off in July.

The towering 50-metre-long stainless steel craft is seen in a hangar at Mr Musk’s Starbase facility at Boca Chica in Cameron County, Texas, its sci-fi nose cone and fins cast against the night sky.

Starship’s development brings the Tesla billionaire closer to realising his dream of landing an astronaut on the hostile surface of Mars this decade, with a view to ultimately colonising the Red Planet and even constructing cities among its craters by 2050, a project that has already seen him secure a multi-billion dollar contract with Nasa.

SpaceX has ambitions to launch crewed missions to Mars as early as 2024 and currently has the field to itself, with no government agency or rival private company on course to challenge it.

Such a plan would involve Mr Musk’s company building up to 100 Starships a year, with each one capable of housing 100 crew members and boasting “private cabins, large common areas, centralised storage, solar storm shelters and a viewing gallery”, according to SpaceX’s user guide for the rocket.

The firm only began testing Starship prototypes in January 2020 but has so far set about its task at an astonishing rate.

After two successful 150-metre “hops” at its Starbase centre, SpaceX began a series of high-altitude flight tests at a frequency of nearly one a month. Although the first four of these ended in explosions, each represented a milestone in Starship’s progress.

Alongside Starship, the company is also building a 70-metre Super Heavy booster that will also be fully reusable and capable of supporting regular rocket launches from Earth.

When combined, this two-stage rocket will stand at 120 metres and make for the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed.

The craft features six Raptor engines fed with liquid methane and liquid oxygen by propellant tanks, producing methalox in a combustion process that takes place in several stages, the engine design serving to minimise waste, according to the BBC.

Mr Musk hopes the use of methane as its fuel will mean it can be synthesised with subsurface water and atmospheric carbon dioxide should it eventually reach Mars, creating a Sabatier reaction that would enable it to power its way back to Earth self-sufficiently.

The Super Heavy rocket will meanwhile be filled with 3,400 tonnes of cryogenic methalox and be powered by a further 28 Raptor engines, providing 72 Meganewtons of maximum thrust and rendering it more powerful than the huge Saturn V launcher that was used for the Apollo Moon missions in the 1960s and 70s.

Speaking at a Nasa panel event in April, Mr Musk observed that it is now almost 50 years since man last landed on the Moon and commented: “We need to have a big permanently occupied base on the Moon, and then build a city on Mars and become a spacefaring civilisation. We don’t want to be one of those single planet species, we want to be a multi-planetary species.”

The tech developer has previously described his motivation as lying in the prospect of existential threats to our planet, telling a conference in Mexico in 2016 that the future for the human species amounts to staying on Earth and awaiting “some eventual extinction event” - like the planet succumbing to the effects of the climate crisis or being struck by an asteroid - or establish new colonies elsewhere to increase humanity’s chances of survival.

Mr Musk has been serious about cultivating life on Mars since at least 2001, when he attempted to buy three intercontinental ballistic missiles for $20 million in order to blast a robotic greenhouse to the planet in order to grow plants in its soil.

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