“Starship’s payload capacity is huge; it’s very, very big, and there aren’t that many commercial uses today for a rocket that big,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be so cheap that it makes sense to launch satellites on it if it’s not full, or near full.”
Astronomers, on the other hand, see Starship’s massive capacity as a new opportunity for sending bigger and more ambitious telescopes into space. With today’s rockets, scientists “face strict limits of mass and volume, which boxes the physical footprint and capabilities of instruments into a tight corner,” said Abhi Tripathi, director of mission operations at the Space Sciences Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.
“With those constraints relaxed, and the launch cost lower because of a rapidly reusable vehicle, Starship really expands the work space within which scientists and engineers can create novel missions,” said Dr. Tripathi, who previously worked at SpaceX.
The U.S. military has its own concepts for SpaceX rockets. The Air Force in January gave SpaceX $102 million to study using the spacecraft as a cargo ship that could deploy resources to various parts of the world in a matter of minutes, or point-to-point transportation. Potentially, Starship would launch to orbit and re-enter over a particular region to deliver humanitarian supplies or military cargo in a fraction of the time needed by traditional military aircraft. The legality and logistics of such a concept, though, remain uncertain.
Is Starship really going to get SpaceX to Mars?
In the past decade, the idea of Starship has taken many forms.
The rocket has even had other names: Mars Colonial Transporter, Interplanetary Transport System and B.F.R. (which, officially at least, stood for Big Falcon Rocket). Via tweet, Mr. Musk changed the name to Starship in 2018. The design of the rocket has also morphed — the landing legs and the shape of its aerodynamic fins have changed, but its shiny steel exterior has remained. An elevator was added to the Starship concept that will land on the moon for NASA, allowing astronauts to descend to the surface from Starship’s crew section at the top.
The engines that power Starship, Raptor, have also evolved, with the current version called Raptor 2. But a “complete design overhaul is necessary for the engine that can actually make life multiplanetary,” Mr. Musk said last year of the engines.
“It won’t be called Raptor.”
And then there’s the matter of surviving a journey to Mars. When asked about developing life support systems for long-term journeys in 2019, Mr. Musk blithely said, “I don’t think it’s actually super hard to do that, relative to the spacecraft itself.”