An appreciation of Starship’s capabilities is important for understanding how and why this vehicle can provide unprecedented opportunities for the planetary science community to fly payloads to the Moon and Mars, thus advancing NASA planetary science and exploration.
This two-stage vehicle (Super Heavy first stage and Starship as the second stage) is fully reusable and can transport payloads to Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars, along with being able to support a number of other missions including to Venus, asteroids, or elsewhere in the Solar System. Starship will also serve as the lander for lunar and Martian human and robotic missions, with payload volume and configuration adjusted for specific mission types. Starship missions will utilize in-space propellant transfer, enabled by Starship’s substantial LEO performance capability and rapid launch cadence. The booster launches Starship into Earth orbit, where the Starship is refilled with CH4 and O2 by tanker flights from Earth (tankers are Starships which carry only propellant as payload), typically prepositioned in advance of the launch of primary payload. Both boosters and tankers return to the launch site for reuse. The refilled Starship vehicle then travels to the Moon or Mars and descends to the surface. Refilling Starship in orbit effectively resets the rocket equation, allowing for large payloads to be transported to these planetary destinations.
Starship is 9 m in diameter and 50 m in length. The vehicle is capable of delivering ~100 metric tons of payload to the lunar or Martian surface and has both forward and aft storage capacity (one configuration is a forward cargo section with a capacity of ~1100 cubic meters and three aft cargo sections, each with capacities of ~50 cubic meters). Initial payloads will require significant autonomy for deployment and operations, while future payloads may employ crew oversight once a human presence has been established. Starship is also capable of returning crew and cargo from the Moon or Mars to Earth with 10s of tons of return mass depending on propellant refilling architecture details. Many early Starships are expected to remain on the planetary surface where they can be used for a variety of applications. To return large payloads to Earth, the vehicle is nominally refilled with propellants produced from local resources processed through a surface propellant production plant (i.e., ISRU, in situ resource utilization) for Mars missions, while lunar return missions can either make use of local resources or leverage propellants brought from Earth. Starship then launches from the lunar or Martian surface and returns directly to Earth.
These first crewed Starships will likely each have about 10-20 total people onboard with an additional 100+ metric tons of available cargo mass per Starship. Cargo carried on these flights will include additional equipment required for human health and productivity during transit to the Moon or Mars and on the surface. Current SpaceX mission planning includes the intention that these vehicles will also carry hardware needed to support the human base including equipment for increased power production, water extraction, LOX/methane production, pre-prepared landing pads, radiation shielding, dust control equipment, exterior shelters for humans and equipment, etc. We suggest that the manifest could also include science payloads designed and built using NASA funding. Humans will likely live on the Starship for the first few years until additional habitats are constructed, so the radiation risk must be assessed and mitigated with equipment planned to support this initial infrastructure.
Planetary Science Enabled by Starship
Given the Starship’s anticipated low cost, high payload capacity, and potential for high flight cadence, the opportunities presented for planetary science missions have the potential to dramatically increase our progress towards NASA Planetary Science & Astrobiology goals and objectives.
In order to take advantage of the impending Starship flights to the surface of the Moon and Mars, NASA will need to develop a new funding program consistent with the mission timelines for rapid flights planned by SpaceX. To be most effective, planning should begin immediately to prepare for payloads on the first uncrewed Starship flights, likely first to the Moon and then for Mars. Starship missions to the lunar surface can be an important stepping stone for reaching Mars both technically and programmatically. The Moon can be a testbed and demonstration platform for ISRU technologies as well as Starship operations.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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