Elon Musk and Starship: eight things to know about the Mars rocket

The SpaceX billionaire is building the world's most powerful rocket with the aim to take human beings to Mars and beyond

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Elon Musk is attempting to build the world’s most powerful rocket to take human passengers and cargo to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

The Starship is close to making its first orbital test flight, and if successful, will move the rocket a step closer to launching missions.

Two billionaires have already bought tickets for a ride on the 120-metre-tall Starship, which is being developed by SpaceX.

American Jared Isaacman has a seat on the first crewed flight.

And Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa has bought tickets for the first crewed flight to the Moon.

SpaceX is also building a Starship Human Lander that would be used by Nasa for its crewed flights to the Moon as part of the Artemis programme.

The National looks at eight key things to know about the rocket.

What is Starship?

Starship is a two-stage rocket system that includes a booster and a Starship spacecraft.

It has been in development for many years at the Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.

The rocket has completed high-altitude tests, but it is yet to perform an orbital flight.

Mr Musk is building it to carry satellites into low-Earth orbit, astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station and uncrewed and crewed missions to the Moon.

But his ultimate goal is to use Starship to send people and cargo to Mars to eventually build a colony there.

Lifting Starship off the ground

SpaceX has built a Super Heavy Launch vehicle, or booster rocket, that the Starship will launch atop of.

The launch vehicle will be the world’s most powerful, producing 3,991 tonnes of thrust, 15 per cent more than Nasa’s Apollo Moon rocket Saturn V.

Refuelling in orbit to reach faraway destinations

Starship has been designed to deliver 100 tonnes of payload to low-Earth orbit, but then will have to refuel while in orbit to reach destinations that are farther away.

SpaceX is reportedly looking to use a repurposed Starship to act as a fuel station in orbit. Several refuel rockets would launch and dock with the station, where a rocket bound for deep space could refuel.

Powerful Raptor engines

To power the booster and Starship spacecraft, SpaceX is using powerful Raptor engines that can produce 230 tonnes of thrust.

That is slightly more than the RS-25 engines that Nasa’s new Moon rocket Space Launch System will use.

Six raptor engines will be used in the Starship spacecraft and 33 in the booster.

It is fully reusable

The Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket have been designed to be fully reusable.

The booster lands back on the ground after the Starship spacecraft separates from it, and the spacecraft can also land back after delivering the payload.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are also reusable. Nasa uses them and the Crew Dragon spacecraft to launch their astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Other billionaires have also built reusable rockets. Jeff Bezos’s New Shepard rocket is used for sub-orbital space tourism flights after which it lands back on ground after the crew capsule separates from it.

When is it launching?

There is no launch date yet, because the rocket has to first prove it can fly to orbit.

Mr Musk has said if testing goes well Starship would be ready next month for an orbital test flight.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released details of what the test flight would involve.

The rocket will launch from Starbase and then the booster will separate from the spacecraft at about 170 seconds into the flight.

The booster will then perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 32 kilometres from the shore.

The orbital Starship will continue flying between the Florida Straits.

It will achieve orbit until performing a powered, targeted landing approximately 100km off the north-west coast of Kauai, a Hawaiian island, in a soft ocean landing.

Challenges ahead

But before SpaceX can go ahead with any orbital flights, it will have to get a launch licence from the FAA.

The authority has allowed the company to carry out its work on Starbase, but it will have to meet 75 conditions to continue operations.

Some of these include reducing the environmental effects and lowering the number of road closures.

In future, however, SpaceX will use Florida's Kennedy Space Centre to launch its Starship missions.

This week, a booster rocket went up in flames after an explosion during a ground test on Monday. The test was taking place to prepare for an orbital test flight of the booster 7 and Starship 24, prototypes of the rocket.

The rocket was moved back to the garage for assessment and Mr Musk said the damage was minor.

Mr Musk’s plan to make life multi-planetary

Mr Musk’s long-term goal is to make life multi-planetary.

He is working towards sending a million people to Mars by 2050 using his Starship fleets.

He hopes to send the first uncrewed cargo flight to the planet this decade.

But his plans are often criticised by experts in the science community, because Mars has a notoriously hostile environment.

Updated: July 15, 2022, 3:30 AM