Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) chief executive officer Mr. Elon Musk has shared details for his company’s Starship launch vehicle platform. Starship is currently under development in SpaceX’s facilities in Boca Chica, Texas. Once development is complete, it will replace the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and conduct interplanetary and lunar missions. It will also enable SpaceX to expand its Starlink constellation of internet satellites rapidly and, in the process, become the largest operational rocket in the world.
The latest details came in the form of several tweets made by the executive yesterday, as he commented on a picture for Starship’s ‘thrust puck.’ After successfully landing a prototype of the platform’s upper stage earlier this month, SpaceX is now building Starship’s first stage booster, which it calls Super Heavy. This booster will be responsible for propelling the vehicle’s payloads beyond Earth’s gravity, and SpaceX might test it within the next few months.
he puck is responsible for securing the first-stage booster’s engines to its body. After the picture of the part was shared by NASASpaceflight.com’s photojournalist Mary, observers commented that the Super Heavy’s final design could include as many as 29 Raptor full-flow staged-combustion methane-fuelled rocket engines.
While Musk is generally forthcoming about the testing and design details of the rockets, he often shares fewer details about their engines. His previous tweets have indicated that the maximum thrust the Raptor has achieved during testing is 225 metric tons and a tweet made in 2016 highlighted that SpaceX plans to achieve 310 metric tons of thrust with the rocket engine.
The latest tweets provide more insight into SpaceX’s current goals for the Raptor. In response to speculation about the Super Heavy using 29 engines, Musk outlined that the booster will use 29 engines and scale this up to 32 engines by the end of this year. When combined with improvements on the Raptor to increase its thrust, this will enable the Super Heavy to achieve 7,500 tons or 16.6 million pounds of thrust.
SpaceX’s Starship Rocket To Beat SLS and Saturn V By Generating 16 Million Pounds Of Thrust
Should his company use 32 engines to deliver 7,500 metric tons of thrust, then each engine will generate a maximum thrust of 234 metric tons. While this will be below Musk’s goal in 2016, it is higher than the maximum thrust achieved by the Raptor last year.
More importantly, a 32-engine Starship with 16 million pounds of thrust will be the largest rocket in the world. It will have surpassed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) legendary Saturn V rocket, which landed astronauts on the Moon in 1969. The Saturn V, now retired, was capable of generating an eye-watering 7.7 million pounds of thrust, and it remains to date the largest rocket ever flown by NASA.
NASA, however, intends to beat the Saturn V with its Space Launch System (SLS), which is the agency’s rocket of choice for the Artemis program. The Artemis program will resume American presence on the Moon, and the SLS’s first variant can generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust – roughly 15% more than the Saturn V.
However, even this pales compared to Starship, which will generate 16 million pounds once fully operational, as we’ve noted above. This is near twice the trust of the Saturn V and reflects Musk’s beliefs about the capabilities needed to send missions to Mars.
In an extensive interview he gave at the Mars Society’s 23rd Annual Convention last year, Musk outlined that optimistically, for every five tons of payload launched to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), it is possible to launch one ton to Mars.
SpaceX plans to launch at least 100 tons to orbit with a fully configured Starship, and going by Musk’s expectations, should enable the company to deliver 20 tons of payload to Mars with a single launch. The SLS, on the other hand, will deliver 77 tons to LEO with its Block1 design and scale this up to 143 tons with Block 2. A ‘Block’ in aeronautics and aerospace terminology refers to a design generation, with Block 2 highlighting the second-generation SLS.
However, Starship Super Heavy’s first test will not use 29 engines. Musk also confirmed that SpaceX would use two to four engines during the first tests in his interview. The reason behind the decision is to prevent losing too many Raptors, as the first few tests are unlikely to witness a successful landing.
In his latest comments, the SpaceX chief also outlined that the Raptor production rate has enabled his company to nearly produce one engine every two days. Going by these estimates, a full complement of 29 engines is nearly two months of production time, and a failure stands to push back testing by a similar timeframe.
The company has already lost twelve engines so far during testing four Starship prototypes. The fate of the three engines of Starship SN15, which successfully landed, is unclear as the company has removed the engines from the prototype. SpaceX might refurbish them for future tests or disassemble them for spare parts depending on the internal state of their components.
Musk hopes to land Starship on Mars next year and achieve orbit with the platform this year. Should these plans be successful, then his company will officially operate the world’s largest rocket. This, in turn, will enable SpaceX to rapidly build out its Starlink satellite internet constellation, reduce launch costs should it achieve a rapid launch cadence and even conduct point-to-point passenger flights on Earth.