Starship Receives Updates

This week, Elon Musk made a presentation to hundreds of thousands online, concerning the current state of SpaceX’s Mars project, specifically the changes that have occurred since his last presentation, where he unveiled the #dearMoon project. There has already been incredible progress since his first 2016 presentation at the IAC (International Astronautical Congress), where there…

This week, Elon Musk made a presentation to hundreds of thousands online, concerning the current state of SpaceX’s Mars project, specifically the changes that have occurred since his last presentation, where he unveiled the #dearMoon project.

There has already been incredible progress since his first 2016 presentation at the IAC (International Astronautical Congress), where there was little more than a cryogenic tank experiment. In the intervening years, SpaceX has tested heat shield designs, built functional Raptor engines and has even flown Starhopper, a shorter Starship-esque “flying water tank”.

Behind Musk was am impressive background; the Starship Mk.1, next to the first stage of SpaceX’s first rocket, the Falcon 1. This served to make a perfect display to the various updates that Musk announced, which included the first flight of the Starship in only one to two months, which will go up to 20km high. After that will be the first orbital launch with the Starship Mk.4 or 5 in only five or six months, with possible crewed flights within a year! This would be an incredible rate of progress, and of course, this schedule is almost certainly going to be delayed, as is the Musk style. However, the rate of progress so far helps to make this goal seem actually possible with minimum extra time.

The changes to the Starship itself are much less dramatic. The future spacecraft has now lost it’s ‘Tintin’ look, as it was decided to move the landing legs from the movable ‘arms’ to the main body. The ‘arms’ act to guide the Starship’s descent, much like a skydiver’s, thanks to the very quick descent the Starship will have to make on interplanetary trips.

The underside (windward side) of the Starship, displaying the currently intended tiles

In addition to these changes, the windward part of the spacecraft will now have to be covered with ceramic tiles, although the hull’s main material remains a stainless steel alloy. Ceramic tiles were not planned to be used on the Starship before now, because of a previous plan to use cryogenic ‘bleeding’ to absorb and carry away heat. The latter strategy was likely replaced due to the risk of using it, as blocked pores would likely result in the destruction of the ship.

Instead, SpaceX will use a ceramic tile system, similar to the space shuttle’s main re-entry system, although with some differences. The shuttle’s system required intensive maintenance and replacement, using thousands of custom-made tiles. The Starship will also have thousands of tiles, but these will be optimized for reusability, low maintenance, rapid production, and rapid installation. This is incredibly important for ensuring that the Starship remains a cheap, reusable spacecraft, not an expensive and refurbish-able one like the space shuttle.

Changes to the engine bay of Starship
The current design of the reusable Falcon Super Heavy

Apart from the landing leg and re-entry systems, the other changes to Starship and it’s booster are quite small in scope. This includes the addition of landing legs. movement of engines, and modifications to the grid fins to the Falcon Super Heavy (Starship’s booster), change of engine number and position on both spacecraft and a change to the hull of the Starship.

It is important to point out that while these are the currently advertised features of the Starship, these frequently change from year to year as SpaceX investigates more efficient alternative designs. (The Starship itself has already gone through multiple design changes, which are only likely to stop once it goes orbital. ) As such, this post will probably be out of date within a year as the design of the Mars ship shifts once more.

All images courtesy of SpaceX

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