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SpaceX Starship: 5 Things You Need to Know

By Rich Smith - Apr 12, 2020 at 7:13AM

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What missions can Starship perform -- and at what price?

Elon Musk is building a Starship.

He hasn't succeeded in getting it to orbit yet, though he's gone through several prototypes. But once he does get it built -- and working -- it will be the biggest rocketship the world has ever seen.

Actual photo -- not an artist's depiction -- of SpaceX Starship MK1 IS SpaceX

Starship prototype "SN1" at SpaceX's launch site in Texas. Image source: SpaceX.

Powered by six "Raptor" engines, and launched atop a "Super Heavy" booster sporting 37 more Raptors, Starship promises to be the most powerful rocket ever built -- about twice as powerful as the Saturn V rockets that originally took NASA to the moon. With 100 tons "plus" in potential payload, Starship should be more capable than NASA's latest flagship rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS. Moreover, because both Starship and Super Heavy will be fully reusable (while SLS will not be), SpaceX's rocket should end up being far cheaper than SLS when its cost is spread over multiple launches. 

Of course, all of the above is common knowledge by now. But thanks to a new document just published by SpaceX, the "Starship Users Guide," we now know a whole lot more about SpaceX's Starship than we used to.  Here are five interesting facts you might not (yet) be aware of.

1. Caution: Wide load

Starship isn't just big. This spacecraft will be downright roomy.

According to SpaceX's Users Guide, "the standard Starship payload fairing is 9 m in outer diameter [and eight meters inner diameter] resulting in the largest usable payload volume of any current or in development launcher."

Because it's so wide, Starship can carry entire space systems into orbit, eliminating the need to take objects apart and send them up in pieces for reassembly in orbit. Starship's wide load permits it to carry:

  • Intact "in-space demonstration spacecraft"
  • "1-3x geosynchronous telecom satellite(s)" -- simultaneously!
  • A "full constellation of [smaller] satellites on a single mission"
  • And even "large observatories."

(And those are just the inanimate cargo options. Starship will also have a passenger variant for carrying humans to space.)

2. Max headroom

For extra-tall cargo, Starship will also offer the option of "an extended payload volume ... for payloads requiring up to 22 m of height," an option that should increase the spacecraft's versatility when tasked with carrying oddly shaped spacecraft, multiple large telecom satellites, or constellations of small satellites for simultaneous deployment in orbit.

3. Fragile: Handle with care

Rocket launchers need to exercise different levels of care when launching payloads of fuel, of delicate electronics, or even more delicate astronauts. Simply put, the more fragile the cargo, the lower the "G" force a rocket can accelerate at. To accommodate different payloads with differing requirements, SpaceX is designing Starship such that "both the Super Heavy and Starship engines can be throttled to help maintain launch vehicle and payload acceleration limits."

Once again, this function of the rocket's design expands the range of cargo SpaceX will be able to use Starship to carry.

4. No more dumped "fairings"

The expendable rockets that most space companies fly enclose their payloads within two fairing halves that split open to release a payload, then tumble down to burn up in Earth's atmosphere. SpaceX's own Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets use a similar design, although SpaceX has been working out a process for recovering its fairings by parachuting them back to Earth and capturing them in large nets.

Starship, however, will obviate this need by utilizing an openable-closable clamshell fairing door to protect its cargo. "To deploy the payload," explains the Users Guide, "the clamshell fairing door is opened, and the payload adapter and payload are tilted at an angle in preparation for separation. The payload is then separated using the mission-unique payload adapter." Then the fairing door closes again.

This ability to open and close the fairing door repeatedly, never jettisoning the fairing, will permit Starship to capture defunct satellites for repair or refueling in orbit, to relocate satellites to new orbits, or even bring them back to Earth -- opening entire new areas of business for SpaceX to exploit.

5. The price

There is, however, one thing that SpaceX very notably leaves out of its Starship Users Guide -- and this is arguably the most important point of all from the perspective of an investor: price.

SpaceX says not word one about how much it will cost for it to build or operate a Starship (or to build a Super Heavy, for that matter). It's similarly silent on the price it will charge customers for launch services utilizing the rocket. Until we know those two things, it's going to be very difficult to say what kinds of profit margins Starship might produce for SpaceX -- or how much leeway the company will have to lower its prices to keep competition at bay.

Until we know that, it's going to be hard to estimate how much of a competitive threat Starship poses to the established space launch businesses of companies such as America's United Launch Alliance or Europe's Arianespace.

That being said, given what we now do know about Starship from the company's Starship Users Guide, I think it's safe to say: If SpaceX prices this thing right, it's going to be a very hard company to compete with.

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