Witnessing the space revolution: what Starship is and what to expect from its first flight

In the coming days, we can witness the most anticipated space event of 2023. SpaceX will conduct the first orbital test of the new Starship spacecraft. But why is its flight gets so much attention? And can Starship really revolutionize space travel? Let’s figure it out.

What is Starship?

Starship is the name of a fully reusable transportation system created by SpaceX. It consists of a spacecraft of the same name and an accelerator (first stage) called Super Heavy.

Prototype Starship and Super Heavy fully assembled. Source: SpaceX

What are the dimensions of the Starship?

Starship is the largest launch vehicle in history. The weight of the Starship together with Super Heavy fully fueled is about 5,000 tons, and the height is 120 meters. The Super Heavy stage (its length is 69 meters) is equipped with 33 Raptor engines that use methane as a fuel and liquid oxygen as an oxidizer. The Starship (50 meters long) is equipped with six Raptor engines. In its reusable version, Starship will be able to deliver 100-150 tons of cargo to low Earth orbit.

For comparison, the height of the legendary Saturn V (it was used to transport American astronauts to the Moon) was 110 meters, the weight was 2965 tons. The rocket could deliver up to 140 tons of cargo into low Earth orbit.

How is Starship different from Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon?

Given the variety of SpaceX equipment, laymen can easily get confused in its names. So, let’s figure it out.

Falcon 9 is a launch vehicle that is the main “workhorse” of SpaceX. It has a reusable first stage that lands on a barge in the ocean or on a land platform. Falcon 9 can take up to 22 tons of cargo into low Earth orbit.

Falcon 9 with the Crew Dragon ship installed on it. Source: SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy is essentially a modified version of the Falcon 9 with two additional stages used as side boosters. It can launch up to 63 tons of cargo into orbit.

Preparation of Falcon Heavy for launch. Source: SpaceX

Dragon is a capsule spacecraft. It exists in two versions. Cargo Dragon is used to deliver cargo to the ISS and return it to Earth. Crew Dragon is used for manned flights.

Crew Dragon spacecraft (concept). Source: SpaceX

It is also worth recalling that SpaceX has been developing Starship since 2012. During this time, the system has repeatedly changed both its design and name, which creates additional confusion. In different years it was called Mars Colonial Transporter, Interplanetary Transport System and BFR.

Why do we need a Starship?

Starship is created as a multifunctional system designed to perform many different tasks. One of them is the delivery of large quantities of cargo into space. SpaceX plans to use the Starship cargo modification to launch the next generation of Starlink satellites, which are too large and heavy to be launched by conventional rockets, such as Falcon 9.

Starship as imagined by an artist. Source: SpaceX

Another purpose of the Starship is to use it as an interplanetary transport system. According to the idea of SpaceX, it will become the basis for the project of the development and colonization of Mars. Another modification of the ship will be involved for the landing of American astronauts on the south pole of the Moon under the Artemis program.

Starship on the Moon (concept). Source: SpaceX

Finally, Starship can be used for intercontinental passenger flights on Earth. According to SpaceX, Starship will be able to fly New York – Shanghai in just 39 minutes.

What is revolutionary about Starship?

Starship is the first fully reusable space system in history. Both the accelerator and the spacecraft itself will be reusable, allowing for significant reductions in launch costs. According to Elon Musk, within 2-3 years of operation, the cost of launching Starship will decrease to less than 10 million dollars. For comparison, the launch cost of the SLS rocket created by NASA is about 4 billion dollars. At the same time, it has a smaller payload than the Starship.

33 Raptor methane engines mounted on a Super Heavy booster. Source: SpaceX

If SpaceX manages to achieve the announced launch price, it will make a real revolution in the space market. It should not be forgotten that Starship is not just a large rocket for launching cargo into orbit. The ship can land on other celestial bodies, and then take off from their surface. It can also be refueled in space and used as a tanker.

Another important feature of Starship is the use of methane as fuel. In recent years, many designers have bet on methane fuel, but so far none of these rockets has managed to reach orbit. If a successful Starship flight takes place in the nearest future, SpaceX will be able to overtake its competitors in this field as well.

What to expect from the first flight of the Starship?

The purpose of Starship’s first flight is to comprehensively test system components and collect data that cannot be obtained through computer simulations.

Burning the Super Heavy accelerator. Source: SpaceX

The flight plan is as follows. Super Heavy and prototype Starship, will be launched from the territory of the SpaceX test site near the village of Boca Chica, Texas. After separation, the booster will perform a partial return maneuver and land in the Gulf of Mexico.

As for the Starship prototype, it will develop enough speed to enter low Earth orbit. The ship will make an incomplete orbit around the Earth. In the area of the Hawaiian Islands, it will activate its engines and enter the atmosphere, after which it will fall into the ocean about 100 km from the northwest coast of the island of Kauai.

But this is in theory. Given the scale of the task and the complexity of the ship’s design, the probability that the Starship will crash is quite high. Elon Musk estimates the probability of such a result at 50%. Soon we are going to find out which of the options comes true.