SpaceX’s spacecraft could boost space research

Elon Musk’s commercial space company, SpaceX, on Wednesday launched four astronauts into orbit as part of Inspiration4, the first fully civilian spaceflight mission. They will return to Earth three days later, having made history. Yet outside of collecting data to add to a strong body of research on human health and performance in space, the value of Inspiration4 as a research mission is questionable.

While all eyes will be on the crew and the mission, the game changer to watch could instead be an ongoing SpaceX project in the background: Starship, which the company envisions as a fully reusable transport system. In May, the Starship SN15 became the first prototype of this system to launch 10,000 meters without anything disastrous. Starship’s first successful orbital flight could take place by the end of the year, and a moon flyby using the system is slated for 2023.

If all goes according to plan, the Starship system would reduce launch costs exponentially and usher in a new era of retail space. Indeed, as the authors of a 2021 white paper for the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey write, “The SpaceX Starship system fundamentally changes the paradigm of science, development and technology testing of NASA and the United States. ‘human exploration of space’.

Starship’s promise has everything to do with its size and potential for reuse. SpaceX claims the 120-meter-tall spacecraft will be capable of carrying a payload of 100 metric tons, with the largest volume of any existing launch vehicle. And unlike any other orbital launch system, Starship would be fully reusable, and Musk said that could reduce launch costs to around $ 2 million per person.

Launching a large telescope into space can cost more than $ 100 million, and reducing that price by two orders of magnitude would have a huge impact on remote sensing, says Waleed Abdalati, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences from the University of Colorado. Rock. Deposition of payloads from telescopes and orbiting satellites would help climate science in two ways, he says:]] have a lifespan of three to five years, Starship could create a less expensive way to make sustained observations of our planet. Second, it could allow for more ambitious science missions under the Earth System Explorer program, which capped the cost of each at $ 350 million.

“If your pitcher consumes $ 60 million [$350 million] or more, you are already reduced to a sufficiently large limit of resources for your actual mission, ”explains Abdalati. “If Starship can reduce that launch cost, there is more that can be directed towards the science mission itself.” Astronomers have similar hopes: at least one next-generation telescope proposed by NASA has already been SpaceX approved for a possible future Starship launch.

Indirectly, Starship could benefit the state of suborbital and orbital science by bringing space debris back to Earth. Space debris presents hazards to launch vehicles and operational orbiters. And any solution to reduce congestion in the sky would be “extremely important”, according to Abdalati. Such a cleanup mission could even see Starship scavenge dead satellites from SpaceX’s Starlink system as they increase in number – although critics may note that in this case the company would clean up its own orbital mess and the Removing deceased Starlink satellites does not alleviate the headaches that the mega constellation causes to astronomers on the ground.

Dropping payloads and retrieving others in orbit is an added benefit to Starship’s stated purpose of transporting cargo, and possibly crews, to the moon and Mars. According to the recent white paper, whose list of authors includes researchers affiliated with NASA and SpaceX, the company currently plans to launch several unmanned Starship missions to Mars every two years, each time exploiting a particularly travel-friendly planetary alignment. . Without a crew, the authors write, there is great potential for offloading cargo to Mars as well as bringing back samples from the planet. And similar opportunities exist for transportation to and from Earth’s moon. In this regard, in particular, Starship’s size is an asset. “Because Starship can return tens of tons of payload from the surface of the Moon, the mass of returning lunar sample samples from a single mission would eclipse the combined total mass returned from all lunar samples from all Sample return missions to date, ”the authors write.

But it’s important to question SpaceX’s central claim that Starship can dramatically reduce launch costs, said Pierre Lionnet, research director at Eurospace, the trade association for the European space industry. A space economist by profession, Lionnet says people often pay disproportionate attention to the cost of launching when launching anything into space creates a certain amount of expense. For example, the Rosetta space probe and the Philae lander, which made the very first soft landing on a comet in 2014, cost the European Space Agency almost 1.4 billion euros (around 1.7 billion euros). billion dollars), but its launch cost was less than 10% of the total bill.

The ratio of the cost of launching to the total cost of building and deploying satellites, telescopes and other devices determines which organizations will view Starship’s innovation as particularly valuable, Lionnet said. “For a business, reducing the cost of launching can radically change the economic equation,” he adds. “For a scientific program, not so much.

And while a launch cost of $ 2 million is eye-catching, the number doesn’t tell the whole story, Lionnet says. SpaceX is not a publicly traded company, so it did not disclose the costs of everything that went into the spacecraft, from building more than a dozen prototypes from scratch to employment. an army of designers and engineers. Starship will eventually have to recoup those expenses, Lionnet says. This may, in part, explain the breadth of its proposed applications: SpaceX has promoted the system not only as an interplanetary ferry, space garbage extractor, and economical launcher for large satellites, but also as a global point transport service. to point capable of sending payloads or people anywhere on Earth in an hour.

“If tomorrow you open a hamburger restaurant and you tell me, ‘I’m so smart; my burger will cost 10 cents instead of $ 1.50 ”, I would like to know“ Where are you going to buy your meat? Where are you going to buy bread? How are you going to pay the people who work for you? ‘ This is exactly what is happening with Elon Musk, ”says Lionnet.

Others, like former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, have a more optimistic view of Starship. In 2010, Garver helped design a federal budget deal that provided funding for NASA to develop partnerships with commercial space companies. She says the tenacity of some billionaires’ star-eyed space dreams often outweigh their unpredictability.

“Billionaires are a bit riskier than a large aerospace company, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that in the long run they’re all going to be a part of it,” Garver says. “No one is going to give up.”

She adds that it’s in Musk’s best interests to win government contracts and use Starship to help him with his research efforts to offset the start-up costs he incurred. Winning these contracts means providing a cheaper service than an agency like NASA could manage in-house, so there is a fixed upper limit to what SpaceX could charge a federal customer. At the same time, Garver says, as Starship launches payloads more efficiently than ever before, Congress will seek to reallocate funds previously earmarked for NASA launch costs. Whether that money stays with NASA depends on the agency’s success in expanding into areas of public interest, such as climate solutions or human-crewed space exploration, she adds.

“The more we can relate to national interests, the more money we will have,” Garver says. “The reason we stepped up during the Apollo program wasn’t because ‘Oh my God, we want to see what the moon is made of.’ No, we went to beat the Russians. So what is our quest today? “

In his opinion, Starship’s stated mission could serve as a quest. Zero-G musical performances Aside from, Musk believes in using the platform to establish a colony on Mars. If you agree with the value of the premise, then anything that goes into achieving that goal could then be considered a worthy scientific achievement, Garver says. And that’s not a new goal.

“When I worked at the National Space Society in the 1980s, our mission was to create a space civilization,” she says. “It doesn’t take much time to know that we can’t survive on this planet forever. “

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