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How SpaceX’s Massive Starship Could Unlock the Solar System and Beyond


Furthermore, the Starship has a key advantage over other heavy-lift rockets in development, such as NASA’s much-delayed Space Launch System and the New Glenn Blue Origin rocket. The upper half of the rocket is designed to be refueled in Earth orbit by other ships, so more of its lift capacity can be handed over to scientific equipment rather than fuel. It might require moving humans to the moon, for example Eight separate launches, with each successive “Starship” delivering fuel to the “Lunar Spacecraft” which then makes its way to the Moon with scientific equipment and crew.

Scientists are now beginning to dream about what the Starship might allow them to do. Earlier this year, a research paper published by Jennifer Heldman of the NASA Ames Research Center explored some of the scientific opportunities that spacecraft missions to the Moon and Mars might open. One great benefit is that the Starship can carry full-size equipment from Earth – no need to scale it down to fit a smaller craft, as was required for the Apollo missions to the Moon. For example, “you can bring a rig,” says Heldman. “You can dig for a kilometer, as we do on Earth.” This will allow unprecedented access to the interior of the Moon and Mars, where ice and other useful resources are believed to be present. Before, Heldman says, such an idea was “a little crazy”. But with Starship, “You can do it, and still have room to spare,” she adds. “What else do you want to bring?”

Since the Starship could land back on Earth, it would also – in theory – be able to fetch massive amounts of samples. The sheer volume that can be traced back, from a variety of different locations, would give scientists on Earth unprecedented access to extraterrestrial materials. That 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, says Heldman.

The Starship could also enable more expensive missions to other locations, either by launching directly from Earth or possibly using the Moon and Mars as refueling stations, an ambitious future that Musk envisioned.


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 take advantage of the Starship’s heavy-lift capabilities to explore Neptune and its largest moon, Triton. Neptune has only been visited once, a flight visit by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989, and we still don’t know much about it. “Nobody really thinks this next level about what Starship can enable,” says James McFate, a researcher at the University of Vienna and co-chair of Conex. “That’s what Arcanum was designed to display.”

Weighing about 21 metric tons, the spacecraft will be four times heavier than the largest deep space probe to date: the NASA and European Space Agency’s Cassini-Huygens mission, which explored Saturn from 2004 to 2017. No current rocket can launch such a vehicle. But Starship will make that possible. Arcanum will have several components, including an orbiter to study Neptune, a lander to study Triton, a penetrator to hit the surface of Triton and “run a seismic experiment” to understand its geology and structure, McFate says. The mission can also be equipped with a telescope, which will allow studies of the outer solar system and help in the search for planets around other stars.

Other ideas are more speculative. Philip Lubin, a physicist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, calculated that a large enough rocket, such as the Starship, could be used to prevent an asteroid from colliding with Earth. A mission like this could carry enough explosives to shred the 10-kilometre-wide rock-size asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Its fragments will burn up in the atmosphere before they have a chance to reach our planet.

A spacecraft could also be a better way to launch gigantic space telescopes that can observe the universe. Currently, equipment such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope from NASA and the European Space Agency must be launched, a costly, complex and sensitive procedure that could be prone to error. NASA has proposed a proposed super telescope called LUVOIR designed to image Earth-like planets around other stars. It can be called a Starship, while Musk said that SpaceX is already working on an “interesting project, which is to get a really big telescope, take a dedicated lens for a ground-based telescope, and build a space telescope with it.” No further details were disclosed.

Say hello to the neighbors

Elsewhere, some scientists dream of using the Starship to prepare to visit other stars. Starship could offer a low-cost way to test technologies for spacecraft that can travel several light-years to neighboring star systems, Rene Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and colleagues say. The Starship could launch a sail-powered spacecraft on a trip to Mars, which would use an onboard laser to squeeze out a thin sail and reach incredible speeds, enabling a demonstration beyond Earth orbit. “If SpaceX is kind enough to take one of our sails on board and launch it halfway on its journey to Mars, we should be able to follow its acceleration and trajectory through the solar system for a few days and almost into the orbit of Jupiter,” Heller says.

Other ideas include using the Starship to send a probe into orbit of the volcanic moon of Jupiter Io, a difficult task without significant lift capacity. “It’s very challenging because of getting into orbit and protecting yourself from Jupiter’s harsh radiation,” says Alfred McQueen, a planetary geologist from the University of Arizona. “But mass helps these things. You get a lot of fuel and radiation shielding.”

Musk has suggested that SpaceX could launch as many as a dozen Sheep test flights in 2022, with missions to the Moon and Mars on the horizon — and plenty of science potential for a startup. “Once the Starship starts flying, development will be very fast,” says Margarita Marinova, formerly SpaceX’s chief Mars development engineer. “There will be a lot of people who will be able to drive things.” These can be anything from stand-alone missions with the Starship to ride missions in your current flight manifest. “When you have a capacity of 100 tons, it is very easy to add science instruments,” Marinova says. “If someone wanted to buy payload space, they could have payload space. It would be a really drastic change in how we do science.”

There are, of course, very good reasons to be careful. While the Starship has flown test flights without the Super Heavy booster, we haven’t seen the missile launch fully. It is a huge and very complex machine that you can still have problems developing. SpaceX and Musk, too, have previously been known to be smug (to put it politely) with schedules and goals (a proposed mission to Mars, Red Dragon, was supposed to launch as early as 2018). The Starship’s proposed method for getting to the Moon and Mars, relying on multiple Earth-orbit refueling missions, remains complex and untested.

However, there is also plenty of reason to be excited as to what the Starship could do if it were successful. From the inner to the outer solar system, and perhaps beyond, it may open a whole new era of space science. “I’m sure some very smart people have started thinking about sending science missions on board the spacecraft,” says Abhishek Tripathi, an aerospace scientist from the University of California, Berkeley.

Or, as Musk put it, “It’s really everything you can imagine.”

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