What does it mean for space industry?
Starship, SpaceX’s newest rocket, has launched on its first orbital test flight from Boca Chica, Texas on 20.04.2023. Despite the fact that the rocket suffered a spectacular failure in the 4th minute of flight and the fact that the test was marked by a multitude of problems from the very beginning, the flight can definitely be called a success. There was no complete destruction of the launch platform (albeit a massive crater formed under the launch table) and the integration-launch-land tower is still standing. After the test, the company can finally ditch the old design and move on to considerably newer vehicles, which are expected to include countless improvements. As an added bonus, gigabytes of data were collected from actual flight (instead of simulations), which will allow engineers to develop the rocket and the launch infrastructure even better.
Starship is a two-stage rocket made of steel with a height of 120 meters and a diameter of 9 meters. Its main feature is the planned reusability of both stages, which are intended to be caught (land) directly in the launch tower. Both the reusability and the landing at the launch tower are to enable unprecedented flight cadence, which will translate clearly into low flight costs.
In the photo you can see all the components of the system – in the foreground is, of course, the booster and the second stage (it looks as if it is black, since there are thermal protection plates on one side); both stages are made of steel. Next visible is the launch (as well as landing) tower, on which „chopsticks” are mounted – they have the task of both stacking vehicles and also catching them.
What does the launch mean?
The cost of sending a kilogram into space has decreased dramatically over the past decades. Launching a kilogram using the Space Shuttle used to cost $54,500, and currently Falcon 9 is capable of lifting a kilogram for only $2,720. If the Starship program achieves its goals, lifting a kilogram into orbit could cost as little as $10-20. Of course, prices offered to the customers will never be that low, but nevertheless the trend is there.
Another advantage of the Starship is the overwhelming volume it provides for payload in the vehicle’s second stage (8 meters in diameter and 17.24 meters in height). For example, in Falcon 9 payload bay is 4.6 meters in diameter of 11.4 meters in height (usable), and the payload bay of the Ariane 5 rocket, which carried the JWST telescope, is only 4.57 meters in diameter and 16.19 meters height in usable space. That’s why it was impossible to launch the mirror of JWST in one piece, and its part had to be assembled in orbit. Astronomers and scientists have only begun to discuss the possibilities the Starship will give them – bigger telescopes, heavier structures or a lower cost to send them. Science could benefit greatly from this rocket in many ways – another aspect will also be the possibility of launching larger space stations in segments significantly larger than those of the ISS, because of its immense payload capacity – 100 to 150 tons to LEO orbit. There have even been voices saying that it would be a good idea to use the entire Starship as an orbital station, or even to combine several vehicles into one mega-structure.
The aforementioned ability to lift very large masses into space and the very frequent cadence of flights could be the foundation for in-space-manufacturing. Although its idea is to manufacture vehicles, stations and habitats already in space, one has to start somewhere, a certain initial amount of equipment or workers must be delivered to orbit. SpaceX’s rocket is currently the most promising rocket due to its capabilities and relatively low flight costs.
One cannot overlook the role that the rocket, and indeed its second stage, is expected to have in returning humans to the moon. It was selected as the lunar lander in 2021, beating out bids from Blue Origin and Dynetics. It goes without saying that the particular version to land on the moon will be decidedly redesigned – it will have legs for landing on the silver globe, a crew module instead of a cargo bay or no flaps – but nevertheless its latest flight is a significant step that is required to realize this goal.
The next goal, much more distant than landing on the moon, will be a trip to Mars. Until now, both the public and those involved in spaceflight have imagined it as an expedition of a few astronauts in a small, claustrophobic ship. Starship will enable expeditions that will resemble those familiar from space fantasy.
Whether to fly to the moon or fly to Mars, it will be necessary to test the system multiple times before manned flights are permitted. It will also be necessary to design, build and test the on-orbit fuel transfer system.
And what does the launch itself mean for smaller companies sending small satellites, such as Scanway? Despite the aforementioned cost reduction, the price of spaceflight is still not inexpensive. On the website of SpaceX itself, you can see that prices for sending a single small satellite on a rideshare mission start at $275,000 to SSO orbit. Of course, this is incomparably cheaper than buying a dedicated launch from any carrier, but nevertheless lowering the price will make it even cheaper to send cargo into orbit. This could help improve living conditions on Earth by improving our understanding of the processes on Earth.
How to make Starship reliable
None of the above will come true until the rocket becomes reliable and secure. No astronaut will get on it, and no company will entrust any cargo to it. Improving the rocket’s performances can only be achieved through testing and improvements. SpaceX has adopted an iterative working model during the development of all its products, that is, one in which a great deal of testing is done under actual conditions, unlike old-space companies, which spend a great deal of time on analytical design. SpaceX allows a certain margin for error and isn’t afraid of failures or malfunctions of its technologies – it believes that in this way it will achieve its goals faster. All we can do at the moment is look forward to the next, certainly exciting, rocket tests!