James Webb Space Telescope

Mega rocket Starship could enable new types of astrophysics

Starship is set to become the most powerful rocket ever to have launched.Spacex

SpaceX’s massive Starship vehicle, meant to pave the way for astronauts to visit the Moon and Mars, is preparing to launch for the first time. The flight would make Starship the most powerful rocket ever to leave Earth’s surface. No people will be on board for the first full test, which had been scheduled for 17 April but has now been delayed for at least 48 hours due to a frozen pressure valve.

Scientists say that as well as ferrying astronauts into deep space, Starship could enable new types of astrophysics and planetary science — because it can launch heavier science payloads, such as telescopes and interplanetary spacecraft, than other space vehicles can. SpaceX got approval to launch Starship on 14 April from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

NASA is planning on using Starship as part of its upcoming Artemis missions to send astronauts back to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. SpaceX has also said that Starship could take astronauts to Mars and beyond. Starship is nearly twice as powerful as NASA’s new mega rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which launched for the first time in November.

But researchers say that Starship still has a long way to go to show its worth. “Even if this test flight is fully successful, it will leave a lot of things still to be proven,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics – Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who tracks space launches. Those include demonstrating that Starship and the rocket booster on which it launches can be flown back to Earth after launch and re-used for future missions.

Reusable spaceship

This re-usability is unique to Starship — NASA’s SLS is discarded after each use — and key to SpaceX’s plans to drive down the cost of Starship. But the company will not test the re-usability aspects on this first test flight. Instead, SpaceX will deliberately drop Starship and the rocket booster into the ocean, in order to have fewer things to test initially.

If all goes as planned, the 120-metre-high spaceship will fire 33 powerful engines and lift off from the southernmost tip of Texas. It will enter Earth orbit and fly eastward, dropping the rocket booster into the Gulf of Mexico before Starship flies alone across the Atlantic Ocean, the southern tip of Africa, and the Indian Ocean before ditching in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

Unlike SLS, which uses hydrogen as its main fuel, Starship relies on methane-based engines. Hydrogen is well-established as a rocket fuel, but methane is cheaper and easier to work with. There is also methane in the atmosphere of Mars, which could allow SpaceX to re-fuel on the surface of Mars some day.

For scientists, Starship is attractive because it promises cheaper ways to fly heavier payloads into space. SpaceX says that Starship will be capable of lifting up to 150 tons of payloads to low-Earth orbit, which is five to ten times what other rockets can do. If Starship can launch regularly and safely, as SpaceX’s line of smaller Falcon rockets have shown in recent years, it could dramatically drive down the costs of sending science experiments and observatories into space.

“It’s pretty exciting and it will be wonderful if it works,” says Martin Elvis, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics who has written about Starship’s promise for astrophysics1.

Starship is physically much larger than other space vehicles, which means that more science could fit more easily on each flight. For instance, it can carry objects up to 8 metres across. That means an observatory such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which has a 6.5-metre-wide mirror, could fit inside without having to be folded up, as it had to be to fit in its 4.6-metre-wide rocket space. Designing JWST to be folded to fit, and then unfolded in space, made things much more complicated.

Starship could simultaneously launch multiple space telescopes to work as an array to probe the Universe, or allow engineers to use cheaper materials to build observatories because they don’t have to worry so much about mass. “Let’s see if we can do one of these big machines for half the cost,” Elvis says.

In planetary science, Starship could enable new types of missions including crewed and uncrewed trips to Mars. It can carry dozens of people and 100 metric tons of cargo to Mars, which would allow explorers to cache supplies for future missions on the Martian surface2.

It is the only rocket capable of sending astronauts to Mars, which could happen through SpaceX alone — founder Elon Musk wants to use Starship to populate the red planet — or through a partnership with NASA that has yet to be decided.

Return to the Moon

For now, NASA is focusing on how Starship can help with its Artemis missions to the Moon. In 2021, the agency gave SpaceX $2.9 billion towards development of the vehicle. NASA plans to use its SLS rocket to launch astronauts to the Moon and then transfer them to Starship to descend to the lunar surface. Starship can be re-fueled in lunar orbit, allowing it to act as a sort of ferry service down and back up from the Moon’s surface.

Other heavy-lift rockets are also under development. The US company Blue Origin is working on a rocket called New Glenn that would be a little smaller than Starship. China is also considering developing a reusable large rocket.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has a number of additional Starships already built at its base in southern Texas, waiting for future flights.

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