On the occasion of the eleventh anniversary of SpaceX achieving orbit for the first time with their Falcon 1 rocket on September 28th, 2008, CEO Elon Musk presented an update on the company’s progress developing its massive Super Heavy booster and interplanetary class vehicle, Starship.
It has been some 12 months since the last update on the development of the two vehicles – the last update really being overshadowed by the announcement SpaceX planned to fly a Japanese billionaire and his entourage around the Moon and back (see Moon trips, Mr Spock’s “home” and roving an asteroid for more), and the programme has moved on significantly since then, as indicated by the fact that the 2019 update took place at the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica and against the backdrop of the first of the Starship prototype vehicle.
Since its first public unveiling in 2016, the Starship / Super Heavy combination has been through a number of iterations and name changes. However, it is fair to say that things have now settled down on the design front, and what was presented at Boca Chica is liable to remain largely unchanged, assuming everything proceeds as SpaceX hopes.
In this, the flight capable prototype Starship at Boca Chica is the first in a series of such vehicles. A second is under construction at the SpaceX facilities in Cocoa, Florida, and three more are planned, one of which will be used to make the first orbital flight within the next 6 months, and Musk suggesting another could be used in a crewed orbital flight within the next 12 months – which sounds exceptionally ambitious. Construction of the two initial Starship prototypes has not exactly been secret: both have been literally assembled in the open. So even ahead of the September 28th event, some were already developing renderings of the new Starship design compared to the last known iteration.
The new design sees some significant changes in Starship – notably with the fins, canards and landing legs. The 2018 variant was marked by three large fins, two of which would be actuated (hinged for up / down motion relative to the hull) for atmospheric flight, with all three fins containing the vehicle’s landing legs. At the time of that design, I commented that this approach appeared risky: a heavy landing on the Moon or Mars might conceivably damage one of the actuated fins, affecting the vehicle’s ability to undertake atmospheric flight on its return to Earth.
With the new design, the fins are reduced to two and reshaped, both of which are actuated to hinge “up” and “down”. In addition, the landing system is now independent of the fins, removing the greater part of the risk of damaging them on landing. The number of landing legs is also increased to six. At the forward end of the vehicle, the canards are enlarged and hinged in a similar manner to the fins.
The remaining aspects of the design are more-or-less unchanged as far as the body of the ship is concerned: it will be some 50 metres (162.5ft) in length and have a diameter of 9m (29ft). The forward end of the vehicle will be given over to crew and passengers or cargo (or a mix of the two), although Musk now estimates the vehicle will – with the aid of the Super Heavy booster – be lifting up to 150 tonnes to low Earth orbit – an increase of roughly a third – and return up to 50 tonnes to Earth.
To help achieve this, the motor system has been slight revised. While six engines will still be used, three will now be optimised for vacuum thrust, ideal for orbital flight and pushing the vehicle out to the Moon or Mars, and the remaining three optimised for sea level thrust and capable of being gimballed for use during a descent through an atmosphere and landing.
During the presentation, Musk explained the rationale behind the use of 301 cold rolled stainless steel in the design, noting a number of reasons. Firstly, the cold rolling process results in a stronger, light finished product, and this becomes even stronger when exposed to the very low temperatures of cryogenic fuels. Thus, Starship and Super Heavy in theory have a structural strength equitable to that of carbon composites – but at a much lower overall mass.
Secondly, the cold rolled steel has very high melt temperatures, reducing the amount of direct heat shielding required, again reducing the vehicle’s overall mass. It is also both highly corrosion-resistant and easy to work with. This means that basic repairs to a vehicle on the surface of the Moon or Mars could be effected, or even that a Starship could even be dismantled and the steel from the hull re-purposed. Finally, there’s the fact that all these advantages are gained in a product costing around 2% that of an equivalent mass of carbon composite.
In terms of heat shielding, the “windward” side of Starship (the side facing the fictional heat of entry into an atmosphere) will be coated with lightweight ceramic tiles. Somewhat similar in nature to those used within the space shuttle, they will be of a hardier material and less prone to damage. The re-entry profile was also discussed, with Musk comparing Starship to a sky diver.
To explain: the vehicle will approach the atmosphere at a relatively high 60-degree incidence, using the heat generated by contact with the upper atmosphere to slow its velocity from Mach 25 to a point where, once within the denser atmosphere, the vehicle is literally falling more-or-less horizontally. The fins and canards can then be used to maintain the vehicles orientation in a similar manner to that of a sky diver using his arms and legs. in addition, the lift generated by fins and canards will further help slow its descent until, roughly 2 km above the ground, the vehicle will rotate to a vertical position and use the three gimballed Raptor motors to make a propulsive, tail-first landing.
Starship Mk 1 is equipped with the same sea level optimised Raptor motors as intended for the production vehicles. SpaceX hope to see it make at least one flight before the end of the year – although the company has yet to secure a permit from the US Federal Aviation Authority to commence flights. This first attempt will be to an altitude of around 20 km (12.5 mi) before a descent and landing. If successful, the test programme involving the various prototype vehicles will unfold from there.