In addition, Starship has a distinct advantage over other super-heavy-lift rockets under development, such as NASA’s heavily delayed Space Launch System and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. The top half of the rocket is to be refueled by other spacecraft in orbit so that more of its lifting capacity can be given to scientific equipment than to fuel. Taking people to the moon, for example, might requireeight separate starts, with each successive “tanker spaceship” delivering fuel to the “moon spaceship”, which then goes to the moon with scientific equipment and crew.
Scientists are now beginning to dream about what Starship could allow them to do. Earlier this year, an article published by Jennifer Heldmann of NASA Ames Research Center examined some of the scientific opportunities that spacecraft missions to the moon and Mars could open up. One major benefit is that Starship can carry full-size equipment off Earth – it doesn’t have to be miniaturized to fit in a smaller vehicle, as was required for the Apollo missions to the moon. “For example, you could bring an oil rig with you,” says Heldmann. “You could drill a kilometer like we do on Earth.” This would allow unprecedented access to the interior of the Moon and Mars, where ice and other useful resources are believed to be. Such an idea used to be “a little crazy,” says Heldmann. But with Starship, “you could do it and still have room,” she adds. “What else do you want to bring with you?”
Since Starship can land back on Earth, it will also – in theory – be able to bring large amounts of samples with it. The sheer amount that could be returned from a myriad of different locations would give scientists on Earth unprecedented access to extraterrestrial material. That could clear up countless mysteries, such as the volcanic history of the moon or “the question of life and astrobiology” on Mars, says Heldmann.
Starship could also enable more extravagant missions to other locations, either by launching directly from Earth or perhaps using the moon and Mars as gas stations, an ambitious future that Musk envisioned.
Let’s go to Neptune
An idea by an international group of scientists called Conex (Conceptual Exploration Research) is a spacecraft called the Arcanum that would use Starship’s heavy-duty capabilities to explore Neptune and its largest moon, Triton. Neptune has only been visited once, a flying visit by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989, and there’s so much we still don’t know. “Nobody really thinks about what Starship could make possible at this next level,” says James McKevitt, researcher at the University of Vienna and co-head of Conex. “Arcanum should show that.”
With a weight of around 21 tons, the space probe would be four times heavier than the largest deep space probe to date: the Cassini-Huygens mission of NASA and ESA, which explored Saturn from 2004 to 2017. but Starship would make it happen. Arcanum would have numerous components, including an orbiter to study Neptune, a lander to study Triton, and a penetrator to hit Triton’s surface and “conduct a seismic experiment” to understand its geology and structure, McKevitt says. The mission could also be equipped with a telescope that enables studies of the outer solar system and aids in the hunt for planets around other stars.
Other ideas are even more speculative. Philip Lubin, a physicist from the University of California at Santa Barbara, calculated that a rocket big enough, like Starship, could be used to prevent an asteroid from hitting Earth. Such a mission could carry enough explosives to tear apart an asteroid the size of the 10-kilometer-wide rock that wiped out the dinosaurs. Its fragments would burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere before they could reach our planet.
Starship could also be a better way to launch giant space telescopes that can observe the universe. Currently, devices such as NASA’s and ESA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope have to be started folded, an expensive, complex, and delicate process that could be prone to error. NASA has suggested that a proposed super telescope called LUVOIR was designed to image Earth-like planets around other starscould start on Starship, while Musk said SpaceX was already working on “an interesting project which is to have a really big telescope, take a lens that was designed for a ground-based telescope, and use it to create a space-based telescope.” Further details have not yet been revealed.
Say hi to the neighbors
Elsewhere, some scientists dream of using Starship to prepare to visit other stars. René Heller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and colleagues say Starship could offer an inexpensive way to test technologies for a space probe that can travel several light years to neighboring star systems. Starship could unleash a sail-powered spacecraft on a trip to Mars, which would press an on-board laser against a thin sail and reach incredible speeds, allowing a demonstration beyond Earth orbit. “If SpaceX were kind enough to take one of our sails on board and let it go only halfway to Mars, we could track its acceleration and travel through the solar system for a few days, almost to Jupiter’s orbit. “Says Heller.
Other ideas include using Starship to send a probe into orbit of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, a difficult task with no substantial lift capability. “It’s extremely difficult to get into orbit and protect yourself from the strong radiation from Jupiter,” says Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist from the University of Arizona. “But bulk helps with these things. You can have a lot of fuel and radiation protection. “
Musk has suggested that SpaceX could launch up to a dozen Starship test flights in 2022, with missions to the moon and Mars on the horizon – and plenty of scientific potential to boot. “As soon as Starship starts flying, development will be very quick,” says Margarita Marinova, a former senior Mars development engineer at SpaceX. “There will be so many more people who can fly things.” These can be anything from stand-alone missions with Starship to ridesharing missions on the existing flight manifest. “When you have a capacity of 100 tons, adding scientific hardware is pretty easy,” says Marinova. “If someone wants to buy payload space, they can have payload space. It’s going to be a really drastic change in the way we do science. “
There are of course very good reasons to be careful. While Starship has flown test flights without the super heavy booster, we have yet to see the full rocket launch. It is an extremely massive and complex machine that could develop into problems. SpaceX and Musk were also previously notorious (to put it politely) with schedules and goals (a planned mission to Mars, Red Dragon, should once have started in 2018). And the method proposed by Starship to reach the moon and Mars, which relies on multiple refueling missions in earth orbit, remains complex and untested.
However, there are also plenty of reasons to be excited about what Starship could do if it succeeds. From the inner to the outer solar system and possibly beyond, it could open a whole new era in space exploration. “I’m sure some very smart people are considering sending science missions to Starship,” said Abhishek Tripathi, a space scientist with the University of California at Berkeley.
Or as Musk put it: “It really is everything you can imagine.”