Science

“The Swiss Army Knife of Launchers”: Starship, Elon Musk’s heavyweight rocket

The anecdote is now famous: in 2006, while falling in the middle of a major aeronautical conference in Washington, Elon Musk shouts out loud: “I am the founder of SpaceX, and in five years you are all dead.” The prediction hasn’t come true (yet), but, as often happens in space affairs, it could suffer from a simple weather change. 2022 marks the arrival on the market of a giant rocket, no longer one of those like the European Ariane 6 and the American Falcon 9 capable of putting ten tons into low orbit (LEO), but a true successor to the mythical Saturn 5 that made it possible. to send men to the Moon as part of the Apollo missions (100 tons in LEO).

A multi-mission launcher

“With his Starship, the South African-born billionaire is in the process of developing the Swiss army knife of launchers that can accomplish all missions, whatever the orbits,” warns Philippe Coué, author, space policy specialist. Its competitors – the great powers (China, Europe, Russia, India), the industrialists (Arianespace, Blue Origin) – may never surpass it, and the United States, if it does, “has a chance of dominating space for the next thirty years”, predicts even Philippe Coué. Provided that this first shot is successful, it is expected between the end of February and next April. The Starship is a monster with a first stage, called Super Heavy, 68 meters high by 9 meters in diameter, with 29 Raptor engines, and a second stage made up of a ship first called Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), then Starship. The vertically placed assembly measures 119 meters, which will make it the largest rocket ever built. According to Musk, it must be able to place a payload of 100 to 150 tons in low orbit! On paper, the two stages should be recoverable, but given their sizes, SpaceX engineers were driven to invent a tower currently under construction at the Boca Chica, Texas, site with two arms that will grip the gigantic Falcon Heavy. before it hits the ground. in its recovery phase.

invent while walking

“The other difficulty is to push the ship back, which will cross part of the atmosphere in a horizontal position to stop its descent. It will be subjected to very high thermal stresses,” estimates Christophe Bonnal, an expert in launcher management at the National Center for Studies Spatial (Cnes). So far, SpaceX teams have carried out a dozen Starship module launches: two have been successful, the others have exploded in flight or crashed on landing. Therefore, the next test (SN20) that will bring the two stages together to test them at higher altitudes is crucial. “Musk has that ability to invent while walking at a frenetic pace. Just look at his base in Texas where, before getting the green light from the US authorities (FAA) to take off, he multiplies the construction of copies of Starship,” adds Christophe Bonnal. I think it will do it, at least to reach low orbit, but it will take more time to recover and reuse the two stages, because it risks investigating a few more flaws.”

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First get your hands dirty by becoming the master of low orbit

But once his ship is operational, what exactly will he do with it? Or, to put the question another way, who will have the luxury of firing from a rocket with a payload capacity of more than 100 tons? A handful of soldiers whose satellites sometimes exceed standard sizes or some weird science missions like the successor to the James Webb Telescope that just gained its observing orbit (so not yet). As for the commercial market for conventional satellites, which could dry up, it too appears undersized. “At Cnes we did a study to try to see how Starship was going to change the situation: for a conventional satellite, the launch cost represents 20% of the total. Even with a drastic drop in the kilo in orbit, this is not a revolution”, explains Christophe Bonnal. Today, Starship has only one ambition: to allow Elon Musk to deploy his Starlink constellation, which must position 42,000 satellites above our heads to give the world However, despite the undeniable success of its Falcon 9 launcher (31 launches in 2021), it would be many years before it fully extended its network, which currently has 1,800 operational vehicles. throw 400 into the sky with each flight.” And even if it were successful, the constellation business model is far from guaranteed, warns Xavier Pasco, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research. Musk has only one ambition, to take over low orbit and rule there.”

The express

Hoping that once you have the revolutionary launcher, other uses will arise, like going to mine asteroids for their precious minerals, or launching multiple missions: one can imagine a single Starlink depositing satellites, but bringing back many others. Or watch him establish a network of orbiting solar power plants that would send unlimited renewable energy to earth. “He will try his luck in low orbit testing his technologies, but Musk does not intend to rock cans equipped with solar panels for his constellation indefinitely, he intends to continue his space conquest,” concludes Philippe Coué. With the Moon partnering with NASA in the Artemis program for the return of an American to the serene star (from 2025), but above all in the sights of his own (sincere) dream of colonizing Mars.

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