SpaceX Super Heavy Starship has Breakthrough Design Improvements

Elon Musk has Tweeted some of the details of the breakthrough changes to the SpaceX Super Heavy Starship.

The overall shape of the SpaceX Super Heavy Starship are about the same. However, there are fundamental materials change to airframe, tanks and heatshield.

At the September, 2018 discussion of the previous design of the SpaceX Super Heavy Starship (aka BFR) the craft would mostly land using its shape and heatshield. Design improvements to the airframe, tanks and heatshield would be critical for successfully mostly unpowered re-entry.

The better the unpowered part of re-entry works then the more efficient the whole launch will be and the more reusable the craft will be. A perfected re-entry with no damage for reuse would get this closer to airplane like reusability.

Full airplane like reusability with zero maintenance between launches gets toward the goal of multiple launches per day.

Gwynn Shotwell COO of SpaceX has said the airplane like use of SpaceX Super Heavy Starship (aka BFR) is definitely going to happen. She said in her TED interview that the SpaceX Super Heavy Starship will takeoff and land ten times per day.

Displacing aviation with hypersonic (mach 25) travel would be worth over $15 trillion.

70 thoughts on “SpaceX Super Heavy Starship has Breakthrough Design Improvements”

  1. So maybe the ship can fly 10 times none day. But this implies 3,650 flights per year and if 100 people fit inside, it means they sell 365,000 tickets every year. Where do they find that many people who can afford a ticket? Are there really close to 400 thousand billionaires in the world?

    What about sonic booms? Yes I know it is above the atmosphere but reentry over the destination? Is it so far up we would hear it?

  2. Thanks, that btw was just arguing in principle; I didn’t know.

    The argument still stands. If you narrow down in scope, within that scope whether it is large or small in the overall project, the idea of something fundamental to that scope is still a valid notion.

    There’s no public detail, but L2 already knows what it is and it’s all but explicitly said that it’s not a fundamental change in the sense you’re arguing.

    So that’s a precedent to for future reference if Musk has fun with more cryptic tweets.

  3. When you use the words “fundamental change”, that doesn’t sound much like narrowing down. It either sounds like you hit a dead end and had to backtrack, or that you had an idea that was so obviously superior that it warranted a big revision. In my experience, the “dead end” incidence is about 20x that of the “whoa brainstorm” one.

    BTW: In spaceflight, 5 9’s is pretty much off the table. But you can do considerably better than 9 5’s…

  4. It sounds like you’re starting with a supposition and ending with a certainty.
    Everything from SpaceX put together sounds like they’re narrowing down, not diverging. If there’s some drastic and counter-intuitive redesign it’s more likely to mean within the proportions of that narrow scope, in the later part of such a design process.

    If you’re chasing 5 9’s and unexpectedly find something very much larger than the diminishing returns you expected, that’s drastic and counter-intuitive.

  5. ” It’s time to start making some compromises in the design to get the silly thing launched in 2022. ” <– And you pretend any design compromises are needed to operate in 2022 why?

  6. I wonder if “fundamental materials change to airframe, tanks & heatshield” means something like “we found even better composites to use”, or more like “we found a way to do not quite as well but good enough with aluminum-lithium tanks”. They’ve been way out on the hairy edge of what’s possible up until now. It’s time to start making some compromises in the design to get the silly thing launched in 2022.

    The other thing that I still expect to see is either an abortable crew compartment, or a radically different second stage for crew launch. I continue to believe that there is absolutely no way that they’ll get BFR/BFS (still digging my heels in on the SuperHeavy/Starship thing) NASA crew-certified. I don’t care how reliable they think the Raptor is: NASA isn’t going to buy that the chance of a catastrophic BFR failure is low enough to risk astronauts without an abort mode.

    Even with only 5000 kg of crew and a BFS tank that’s only about 1/3 full, I can’t get a thrust-to-weight for the BFS that’s more than about 2.2. Most escape systems are at about 6. On top of that, you can’t start staged-combustion engines in the few tens of milliseconds that are necessary to abort from a first-stage explosion, even if you’ve pre-chilled them. And on top of that, you’d blow the interstage up unless it’s designed with pyros to blow away vents for the exhaust. But pyros are anathema if you want to do quick turnaround.

  7. It does cut it. This is 2018. You’re not paying me anything to find info for you, never mind asking politely.
    And the size and complexity of the info means you can’t just put into a nutshell.


  8. Don’t worry, they’ll come up with something. Never underestimate the creativity of a person who doesn’t want to admit they’re wrong.

  9. Don’t forget seat belts! Even Piccard dreams of those. We can use an electromagnetic field to maintain atmosphere in the ship, but we can’t keep the crew in their seats. And who put all those rocks in the control panels that are always exploding anyway?

  10. I wouldn’t get too excited about Starships replacing airliners. There still have to be launch and recovery sites, most of which will be a decent distance from population centers. Even if proved reliable enough not to explode occasionally, the noise factor alone will necessitate a significant distance. And that translates to time to switch modes of transport, etc.
    So for a few, specific business cases, a BFR-type ship could work economically/effectively for point to point travel on Earth, but not in general. And don’t forget, the more often you change transports, the more likely your luggage is going to be lost…

  11. And the Orion isn’t going to Orion, nor is the Starliner going anywhere but the ISS. Consider it an aspirational name, not a descriptor.

  12. I don’t mind the “Starship” name. After all, nobody thought that a car called “Rocket 88” actually had a rocket engine. It’s just marketing.

  13. I’d like to see some clever use of all that kinetic energy. With energy, one can do just about anything and in this case, there is a lot of energy and also very high power density. Why not try and manufacture something expensive that requires a lot of power. One of the easiest things would be to split water and use the hydrogen and oxygen for retro rockets. The raptor engine runs on methane though so some carbon needs to be added or some other mode of engine operation must be introduced.
    One can also imagine some more industrial manufacturing of some very expensive material. I don’t have any suggestions but there must be something that requires high temperatures and a lot of energy.
    If the kinetic energy could be turned into electric power instead of only heat, many possibilities would open up.

  14. Then, maybe somebody could take that public part and share it here, given that this is a site many of us come to for news like this. “Hey there’s a breakthrough, go look for it yourself” doesn’t really cut it.

  15. According to NSF, Elon recently liked a report on twitter about high entropy metal alloys (HEA), and the supplier of powdered Inconel for3D printing the rapter engines which has former SpaceX staff is also working on high entropy metals…

  16. The amount of water vapor and such put into the upper atmosphere would be…..well…like another china probably.

  17. The article is at the upper bound. You don’t need that many. There’s enough money to be made to finance our way off Earth for good.

  18. What are flat earthers going to say when you have hundreds of people traveling by BFR daily? Talking about seeing the curvature, taking pictures. Actually, I guess you already have that somewhat with transatlantic flights, but maybe the curvature isn’t great enough to convince them in that case.
    Is it going to be that all the passengers are in on the conspiracy and that all the pictures are fake? Or that the windows are fisheye lenses?

  19. When I saw the double landing of the heavy boosters, I cried a bit. It’s like my little boy space fantasies come to life.

  20. There fuel to propel a rocket is quite clean which sounds counterintuitive but it has much less impact than airplanes.

  21. That’s basically the plan and Bezos is going to keep Musk real. Others will join in. There’s been serious attempts to break thru the initial expense and orbital access barrier for a while now.

  22. Originally when I heard about SpaceXs plans to land the rockets upright on floating barges, I thought no way is this going to work. You’ve gotta be kidding. I’m a believer now.

  23. Dislike the name starship. However will still send some of my ideas and concepts to the canadian space agency in order to help out the missions for mars. Want canadian space agency to be in the space race something fierce. I’m hoping they do the canadian thing to do with my ideas. Not just squander it away like selling off our national treasures like BC rail and CN rail and other companies that were the pride of the nation. Key word WERE. Hope your happy for that. I know I’m not.

  24. Those “downward” fins always articulated parallel to the long axis — they always had dihedral when you wanted it.

  25. Well that’s what L2 is. Private. The info there wouldn’t be shared from industry if it weren’t.

    The public part of it is easy to find, and there’s too many threads to list.

  26. P.S. All of those carriers could then use BFRs to get goods and people into LEO, then Elon and Crew could go about working on inter-large-body transit craft for also selling/leasing to companies for getting cargo and people to moon, Mars, asteroids, etc. Maybe they could work with the likes of Ad Astra or similar corps that are already working on inter-large-body propulsion craft?

  27. That is a GREAT IDEA!! (For SpaceX to sell or lease BFRs to large cargo and human carriers like Boeing does for the Air Transport community. i.e., sell/lease BFRs to the Deltas, Americans, Cathay PAcifics, British Airs, etc. and also to the Fedexes, UPSes, DHLs, etc. of the freight delivery world.)

  28. Once you have transferred the heat to the fuel (or oxygen, whichever works out best) then you don’t want it any more, so just vent it. Don’t store it on board.

  29. Life in 2018 already looks like science fiction from earlier times.

    Captain Kirk probably sits back and watches science fiction where someone has invented non-exploding control panels and safety rails.

  30. But nobody’s proposing BFR for domestic flights, just long transcontinental flights. That reduces the numbers quite a bit. And you’re probably going to pay more for a one-hour flight across the Pacific, so you’re just taking the high end of that market, and only the relatively healthy portion of that since there’s 3G acceleration.

    But I do hope they’re looking at ozone impacts.

  31. Not to totally ruin the dream, but…no, I can’t imagine it. The global commercial aircraft fleet today is just over 35,000 aircraft, making about 100,000 flights per day. This number is protected to grow roughly proportionate with population. It’s hard to imagine why we would need so many Starships. Additionally, these still use chemical propulsion, meaning they do direct damage to the ozone. If we don’t figure out a better way to get into space, we’ll destroy the atmosphere long before we become a multi-planet species.

  32. Nostalgia and romanticism of the past always pay good dividends on story telling.

    Wonder where science fiction will go though. When life looks like science fiction and previous science fiction looks quaint, what will the people concerned about the future dream about?

  33. I’ve seen some research on that, it sounds feasible, but is really only useful for part of the reentry on Earth. OTOH, I hear pressures are low enough on Mars that you can do it right down to ground level.

    I don’t think that’s at a high enough level of development to rely on at this point..

  34. I’m not negative, technically zero is neither negative nor positive, and that’s how much detail we got: Zero.

  35. Gives the commenters something to do.

    My guess is that he is giving the downward facing two fins a nice dihedral shape where the bottom fin landing legs are outside the center of mass of the ship but you don’t have downward pointing fins that channel hot gasses in to the hull and produce hot points.

    In other words top fin still points up, bottom two fins are attached at the bottom and angle up nicely. Helps with channeling hot atmosphere and gives a nice controlable reentry. Two downward fins aren’t great.


  36. Liquid cooling would be mass expensive. The BFR will enter the atmosphere at a much higher angle than the shuttle, meaning leading edges are not as much of an issue, and the heat of reentry will be spread over a much larger area. Carbon-carbon composites should work for this, especially if reentry mass is not high.
    Something I’d like to see tried is manipulation of the plasma created upon reentry by electromagnetic forces, to lower the density of plasma near the skin of the craft. Initial slowing could be done by this method too. You might be able to shed most of the forward speed of the craft in much thinner atmosphere, by magneto hydrodynamic braking, shedding kinetic energy by pushing around plasma with a magnetic field.

  37. My guess: active cooling. Rocket nozzles are cooled with LOX and liquid fuel. So, since the Starship will re-enter with some cryogenic propellant left, some critical parts like the attachment points between the heat shield and the structure could be kept cool. The mostly empty propellant tanks could be modified to hold the vaporized propellant.

  38. My guess: use active cooling. Rocket nozzles are cooled by running LOX and cool fuel through nozzle cooling channels. So the Starship would re-enter with some LOX and liquid methane, which could be used to cool critical points, like where the heat shield mounts to the structure. The mostly empty fuel tanks would have to be modified to accept and hold the vaporized LOX and fuel.

  39. Can you imagine in 20-30 years we have ten thousand of these Starships flying just above the atmosphere in LEO everyday? What a fantastic future. Not to mention a few thousand traveling between Mars, Venus and Earth at any given time.

  40. We are such hero worshiping fans of Musk that a single tweet with no details is worthy of an click 🙂

    Go SpaceX go!

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