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The largest spacecraft ever built is set to reach orbit for the first time in March 2022 – and if all goes according to plan, we’ll take another big step towards a future in which spaceflight is cheaper and more accessible than never.
The challenge: By sending instruments and people into space, we can learn things about the universe that Earth observations simply cannot tell us, but the launch costs greatly limit our alien reach.
This is because every additional ounce of weight included in a rocket’s payload increases the amount of expensive (and also heavy) fuel needed to break free from Earth’s gravity. It is even more expensive to send large instruments into space, since they require bigger and heavier rockets (and, therefore, even more fuel).
Then there’s the cost of the rockets themselves – most are designed for a single launch, and after delivering their payloads, they crash into Earth, burn in the atmosphere, or become space debris.
“The spacecraft would totally change the way we can explore the solar system.”
SpaceX’s spaceship: SpaceX has been a leader in the development of reusable rockets, which land safely on Earth after launch. After refurbishment, they can then be launched over and over again, reducing the cost of each launch.
In 2016, the company began developing a massive launch system, consisting of a 230-foot first-stage booster rocket (called Super Heavy), topped by a 165-foot spacecraft (the Starship).
When complete, Starship should be the largest and most powerful launching system in the world. The current record holder – NASA’s Saturn V, used for the Apollo lunar missions – was slightly shorter and produced just 7.8 million pounds of lift-off thrust, compared to that of Starship. 17 million pound sterling.
The system is designed to carry a massive 220,000-pound payload into low Earth orbit – more than four times the maximum payload of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 – but what is really What’s interesting about Starship is the fact that it’s designed to be fully reusable.
CEO Elon Musk estimated that being able to reuse the spacecraft could reduce the cost of a launch to just $ 2 million.
In comparison, the space shuttle, with a payload capacity of 65,000 pounds, cost almost $ 1.6 billion per mission – and its much-delayed successor, the Space Launch System (SLS), is expected to cost at least $ 900 million per launch (and maybe double that), with a payload capacity of just 154,000 pounds.
Why is this important: David Todd, an analyst at Seradata, told Science Magazine that $ 10 million is a more realistic estimate for low Earth orbit spacecraft launches, but even at that price the craft could significantly increase access to the world. ‘space.
âThe low cost of access has the potential to be a real game-changer for scientific research,â Andrew Westphal, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, told MIT Technology Review. âYou can imagine privately funded missions and citizen consortia coming together to steal things. “
In addition to facilitating carpooling type missions, Starship could also reduce the cost of deployment. big instruments – the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope, for example, would have adapted with plenty of space to spare.
âThe spacecraft is designed to be a generalized transport mechanism for the large solar system,â Musk said in November 2021. âYou could bring a 100-ton object to the surface of Europe. It’s much more than that. that you could do with a little rocket, so I think that’s very exciting.
Add around 40 cabins to a spaceship – as Musk plans to do – and you can use the vehicles to start populating Mars (as long as you refuel in space).
âYou could maybe have five or six people per cabin, if you really wanted to cram people, but I think most of the time we would expect to see two or three people per cabin, so nominally around 100 people per cabin. flight to Mars, âMusk said in 2017.
(It should be noted, however, that missions to higher orbits or deep space would cost more than low Earth orbit estimates.)
What’s up? In August 2020, SpaceX completed its first successful test flight of a prototype spacecraft, sending a shorter version of the rocket on a 500-foot “jump” into the air.
Since then, the company has sent prototypes of Starship farther above the Earth’s surface (successfully landing some of them), and now its 20th prototype Starship (SN20) is undergoing engine tests. at a launch site in Texas, in preparation for an orbital test flight.
This will be the first test flight of a full Starship system – the others did not include the Super Heavy booster – and the first to cross the border into space. (It’s about 62 miles high – the highest flight of a prototype spacecraft so far, without a crash, is 6.2 miles.)
The FAA is currently assessing the potential environmental impact of SpaceX’s orbital test flight. This process is expected to be completed by February 28, which means the launch could take place as early as early March.
Looking forward: In November 2021, Musk said SpaceX could perform a dozen or more Starship test flights in 2022. At that time, he predicted that the first could take place as early as January, so the FAA delay could potentially reduce the number.
If the first orbital test flight Is it that arriving in March, however, we can probably expect to see a lot more before the end of the year, and another of Musk’s predictions from November – the transport of valuable payloads in 2023 – could still be fulfilled.
From there, Starship could start to allow all kinds of missions that are currently not possible.
âThe spacecraft would totally change the way we can explore the solar system,â Ali Bramson, a planetary scientist at Purdue University, told MIT Tech Review. “Planetary science is just going to explode.”
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