Science

SpaceX could launch first spacecraft into orbit in January, says Elon Musk

SpaceX will attempt to put a spacecraft into orbit for the first time early next year, if all goes according to plan.

The company is targeting January or February for its first Starship orbital launch attempt, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said on Wednesday (November 17). And that initial historical leap will ideally be followed by several others soon after.

“We intend to do, hopefully, a dozen [Starship] launches next year, “Musk said during a live presentation at the fall joint meeting of the Board for Space Studies and the Board of Physics and Astronomy, which are part of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. ” Maybe more. ”

World’s tallest rocket: SpaceX stacks Starship on top of massive booster for the first time

Starship consists of two elements, both designed to be fully and rapidly reusable: a massive first-stage thruster known as the Super Heavy and a 165-foot-tall (50-meter) spacecraft called the Starship. Both are powered by SpaceX’s next-gen Raptor engine, six in the Starship’s case and 29 for Super Heavy (at least for now; the thruster will eventually have 33 Raptors, Musk said).

SpaceX is developing this ambitious transportation system to get people and payloads to the Moon, Mars, and other distant destinations.

“Ultimately, Starship is designed to be a generalized transport mechanism for the greater solar system,” Musk said.

SpaceX has launched a handful of test flights with Starship prototypes since its “Starbase” facility, which is located near the southern Texas town of Boca Chica. But those jumps reached a maximum altitude of about 6 miles (10 kilometers) and featured vehicles with just three engines.

SpaceX’s first orbital Starship SN20 is stacked atop its massive Super Heavy Booster 4 for the first time on August 6, 2021 at the company’s Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas. They were 395 feet tall, taller than NASA’s Saturn V lunar rocket. (Image credit: SpaceX)

The next orbital test flight will involve a prototype spacecraft called the SN20, which has the full complement of six Raptors, and a 29-engine Super Heavy known as the Booster 4. The duo will take off from Starbase. Booster 4 will land shortly after takeoff in the Gulf of Mexico, but SN20 will make a loop around Earth and descend into the Pacific Ocean near the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

SpaceX couldn’t launch the mission right now even if it wanted to, because the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is conducting an environmental assessment of the orbital launch activities at Starbase. That review is expected to end on December 31, FAA officials recently announced, and SpaceX intends to take off shortly thereafter.

But we shouldn’t expect a perfect flight, Musk said.

“There is a lot of risk associated with this first pitch,” he said. “So I wouldn’t say that it is likely to be successful, but I think we will make a lot of progress.”

That anticipated progress will lead to about a dozen launches over the course of the year, which should test the Starship system enough for it to begin operational missions in 2023, Musk said.

SpaceX already has some clients for Starship. For example, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa booked the vehicle for a flight around the moon, with takeoff scheduled for 2023. And earlier this year, NASA selected Starship as the initial human landing system for its Artemis program, which aims to establish a sustainable human. presence on and around the moon at the end of the decade.

Artemis’s first manned lunar landing won’t take place before 2025, NASA chief Bill Nelson said recently. (The agency had been filming officially for 2024).

In the long term, SpaceX intends to use Starship to help colonize Mars, thereby turning humanity into a multi-planet species, a long-held and often-manifested ambition of Musk. Starship could even help humanity jump from Mars to the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, to the moons of Jupiter, provided we set up some propellant depots along the way, Musk said.

And, in this grander vision, it wouldn’t be just a few starships making such trips.

“I think for life to become multi-planetary, we will need maybe 1,000 ships or something like that,” Musk said.

Increasing production to meet anticipated demand, especially for the engines, given that 33 will power each Super Heavy, will be a major challenge. But SpaceX is already preparing to deliver, Musk said, noting that the company is now “building the factory to make many starships and many engines in parallel.” That factory is in McGregor, Texas, where SpaceX is testing its engine.

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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