This blog is a direct follow up of Starship Is Still Not Understood, and is part of the series on popular misconceptions in space journalism.
I think it is relatively straightforward to think of cool things to do with SpaceX Starships, so recent posts have focused on trying to understand the more mixed consequences for incumbent industrial organizations that are not ideally positioned to exploit the coming advances. It is, however, a fun exercise to enumerate all the ways in which Starship and related technologies can help execute bold, ambitious missions of scientific discovery.
Edit: A paper by Jennifer L. Heldmann (et al.) out of NASA Ames enumerates the ways in which Starship will change space transportation and calls for new funding paradigms to exploit new opportunities.
While I no longer work for Caltech/JPL/NASA, as always this blog represents only my own opinions and should not be construed as official policy or even particularly heavy criticism. This is not a zero sum game, as there is a lot of upside here. Better technology can help everyone.
Let’s ask a bunch of scientists and engineers and get a laundry list of possible missions to try with Starship. Many of these may not fully utilize the ultimate logistic capacity of the system, but that’s okay. We’re going to focus on how Starship can help specific examples, rather than continuing to harangue future mission designers that they should think in terms of X Starships per year, rather than X Starships per mission.
This blog is also particularly timely as the Astrophysics Decadal Survey was released earlier this month, embodying a series of brutally tough zero sum choices driven by cost disease and a rather meager budget. The decadal process is not perfect but it’s a lot better than the alternative. It represents an ongoing, deliberative process in which the relevant academic community (there is also a planetary science and earth science decadal) develops and presents a consensus around which to collect funding and advocacy strategies. There are missions, such as the Mars helicopter or Europa lander, which are not in the decadal, but they are very very rare.
While I am not qualified to disagree with the specifics of any of their recommendations, all of which represent a treasure trove of potential new knowledge for humanity, the growing time frame involved cannot be ignored. Unable to cram major missions into even ten years, the most recent decadal instead spread the scope into the next next decade. When budgeting and process are considered, the new missions won’t start development for almost two more years, while the Luvoir/Habex hybrid telescope, a 6 m class space telescope mission to study a couple of dozen nearby Earth-like planets, will not launch before 2042 at the absolute earliest. It is wild to me that a process begun before my children were born may not bear fruit until they are completing their PhDs, if they choose to validate my career mistakes by repeating them. If the program is delayed at all, which is quite likely, postdoc astrophysicists reading the decadal this week may have already retired by the time it flies. We are quite literally running up against the limitations of human life expectancy, despite its enormous and ongoing increases in the last century!
To summarize the logistical benefits of Starship, we are now within a few months of the first orbital test flight of a prototype fully reusable launch system. The timing and probability of ultimate success is uncertain but it is safe to say that SpaceX has assembled a competent team and adequate resources, and is acting like they intend to succeed.
While traditional rockets are typically expendable and can launch up to 5 T probes to deep space for a few hundred million dollars, Starship promises the ability to deliver ~100 T of cargo to any planetary surface in the solar system for as little as $50m including refilling tanker flights. Caveats abound, but the key features of the system are a reusable booster and orbital stage, a tanker refueling system to “reset” the upper stage in LEO or even higher orbits, and a heat shield/landing system able to burn off kinetic energy on worlds big enough to retain an atmosphere, or land propulsively on the smaller airless moons. Most importantly, Starship is designed to support rapid turnaround, so in principle science launches have access to a cheap, abundant launch system. With a design capacity of one million tonnes annually to LEO, there is ample capacity to support the dreams of a generation of scientists who would like to oversee a step change in our capacity to answer big questions. There is absolutely no benefit to developing missions for 2042 hamstrung by the launch constraints of 2002.
One important caveat about cost. There is a difference between cost and price and it is highly likely that SpaceX will retain its hard-fought launch margins unless a competitor forces prices down, or a particular mission has strong alignment with SpaceX strategic objectives, such as building a Moon or Mars base. On the other hand, if a zero discount Starship launch is a significant line item in a new space telescope, this blog’s advocacy will have succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. How do we go about saturating Starship’s launch availability? How can we innovate around instrument development to bring costs in line with coming reductions in launch cost?
For the following list of mission concepts I will provide a summary of the current state of the art and then describe possible future improvements enabled by Starship.
As of this writing, the James Webb Space Telescope is achingly close to launch. Begun in 1996 for a planned launch date of 2007 and cost of $500m, actual construction was completed in 2016 before five years of testing for a total cost approaching $9b. Part of the reason for the absurd complexity and expense, beyond routine contractor profiteering and questionable program management, is that the 6.5 m diameter segmented gold-coated beryllium mirror must be folded up to fit into the relatively capacious payload fairing of the Ariane 5 rocket. It is telling that the Ariane 5’s entire launch career began in 2003 and JWST will be its 112th launch! As the JWST program rolled on eating everything in sight, subsequent mission new starts were delayed and delayed again, and subsequent mission plans have assimilated this trauma, not by aggressively finding ways to recover our historical ability to deliver cool new stuff quickly and cheaply, but by fiddling with spreadsheet parameters to yet again lower expectations for future project delivery competence.
Starship can’t magically generate engineers and processes that can deliver a cheaper space telescope, but it can provide a launch system that a) greatly reduces mass and volume constraints and b) reduces the potential cost for operating a serial space telescope construction and launch program, whereby design improvements and learnings can be rolled in continuously.
The first class of things Starship can do really well is launch lots of stuff. This can enable the development of a standard telescope bus, similar to those used by surveillance satellites, to which custom instruments can be added. Other possibilities that require no custom launch vehicle engineering include orbital neutrino detectors, particle accelerators, or gravitational wave observatories.
Another possibility is to support monolithic telescope design that doesn’t require a 400 step sequence to unfold. For a relatively trivial fraction of the overall telescope budget, non-recurring engineering costs could weld together an expendable Starship variant (no TPS, no flaps, no landing legs) with a 15 meter diameter payload fairing. Almost overnight, endless gnashing of teeth about the relative mirror diameters of Luvoir or Habex, or the relative difficulty of performing coronography with a segmented, non circular mirror, go away.
Starship MegaChomper would also be useful for one-off deliveries of other large space hardware to remote locations, including space station parts, light sails, or anything else that accrues substantial cost/schedule overhead to endure folding or modularization. Imagine the size of the starshade that could be fit into that thing!
Probably the coolest telescope concept enabled by Starship, though, is the giant segmented telescope to end all giant segmented telescopes. An unmodified Starship can deliver perhaps a dozen 8 m monolithic hexagonal free-flying segments per launch to a target location such as L2, where they self assemble, calibrate, and then focus incoming light. Over a few dozen Starship flights, a truly enormous spherical mirror section perhaps 1000 m in diameter and with a focal length of 1000 km or so can be assembled behind a free-flying sun shade, pointed in a direction of general interest. In principle this mirror could be made almost arbitrarily large with quadratic marginal cost. Dozens of specialty instruments can then be launched to operate at target-specific foci, operating in an off-axis modality by default. Depending on choices about geometry, a single mirror could address O(10 degrees) of the sky at any one time. In the most extreme case a series of mirrors, possibly in a dodecahedral configuration, could enable simultaneous examination of the entire sky limited only by the number of secondary instruments.
There are two less impractical approaches for terraforming Mars, both focused on increasing net heat retention in the atmosphere. The first is generation of powerful perfluorocarbon greenhouse gases in giant factories on the surface.
The second is mass producing light sails on Earth, launching them into LEO, then flying them to Mars where they can lurk near Mars-Sun L2 and reflect light back at the planet, reducing heat loss during the Martian night. In principle these can be any size but last time I did a trade study it supported mass production of sails ~30 m in diameter each weighing 1 kg with a cell phone based guidance computer and integrated LCD panels for steering and trim. Each Starship could launch 100,000 of these, with a combined area of almost 100 km^2. Flying as an enormous autonomous flotilla they would reach Mars in less than a year and adopt a station magnifying the sun on the far side of the planet. Mere dozens of such Starship launches would be needed to substantially increase net insolation on Mars and begin raising the temperature, without the emplacement of any surface infrastructure.
As of November 2021 there are two known interstellar objects discovered transiting our solar system. It is within our capabilities to build a generic exploration probe, the challenge is launching it quickly and fast enough to catch up with the next candidate so we can get a decent close up look. To be perfectly frank, there are concepts in study right now that don’t even need a Starship, just a steady cadence of probes launched to highly energetic Earth orbits where they can wait for activation, and upon retirement after a few years, be directed to study some candidate near Earth asteroid instead. Starship simply enables mass production and launch of these probes, along with improved propellant margins and reduced mass constraints. Why not launch 50 every six months, chase down ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, and get eyes on every major asteroid inside the orbit of Mars, including the ones that might run into Earth some day? It would not be cheap but I know dozens of astronomers who would donate half their meager salaries in perpetuity so they didn’t have to endure That Guy dragging Jill Tarter and insisting that it was an alien artifact, ever again.
Bombard All The Planets
While we’re talking about mass production of generic probes to chase down fast-moving interstellar visitors, it’s a great time to revisit the old concept of “Bombard All The Planets”. Since the end of the Mariner program, robotic planetary exploration has generally consisted of expensive, laboriously constructed once-in-a-lifetime one-offs to Jupiter, Saturn, or Pluto. All planets have launch windows but most of them have a launch window at least once per Earth year.
Below is a plot I made in a fit of enthusiasm a few years ago showing all the launch windows to all the planets between 2000 and 2037, focused on the Falcon Heavy. As you can see, barely any launch windows (the colored blobs) have missions in them – what a waste!
A fully fueled Starship in LEO requires about 10 launches at a cost of perhaps $50m-$100m. Unlike Falcon Heavy, whose capacity for direct launch to Pluto is pretty meager, a Starship could deliver a flyby mission weighing 100 T to any of the outer planets or moons in less than 10 years. With refueling at higher energy Earth orbits and some creative use of flybys and/or aerobraking, a Starship could deliver >10 T to the surface of any of the outer planet moons with less than a decade of flight time. Starship could deliver 100 T payloads to the surface of Venus or Mars, and even Mercury could get substantial landers and rovers. In short, Starship offers an affordable conveyor belt for essentially anything mission designers can dream up and build. For substantially less than current annual SLS development cost, a planetary science-focused Starship launch program could send a fully loaded Starship to every planet at least once per year, except for Mars whose launch windows are less frequent, but which benefits from Starship baseline design and will probably enjoy its own dedicated program.
Why shouldn’t we have a dedicated orbiter, lander, rover, helicopter, and submarine on every discrete body in the solar system over, say, 100 km in diameter? Let’s build a fleet of clockwork automatons for Venus and an armada of submarines for Europa, Enceladus, and Titan. Let’s darken the Martian skies with helicopters. Let’s drive rovers across the frozen nitrogen plains of Pluto.
Of course this couldn’t be done if every probe cost $1b to build. But I hold in my hand a cell phone that can wirelessly download the entire content of a large library in less than a second almost anywhere on Earth, that exceeds the computational power of the best super computer in the year 2000, that cost me less than $1000 to buy, which was not even the most highly rated smart phone in its year, and which I will *throw away* in a year or two. It is within our capacity as a species to exploit the relaxed design constraints enabled by Starship and build a few thousand tonnes of generic space probe each year for a more reasonable price. Failure is acceptable, because new probes, instruments, and launches are continually rolling off the assembly line at a predictable and rapid pace. PIs need no longer fear that any failure will spell doom until their children are retired.
We have not visited Venus, Uranus, or Neptune since before 1990. Our solar system is a precious gift containing 8 whole planets and hundreds of moons. We have had the capacity to explore it for decades and yet it remains largely ignored. Maybe we should have evolved in a solar system with only one planet and no moons?
Robotic exploration and giant telescopes are great, but the future of space also has humans in it. Let’s talk about how Starship changes the game for human exploration. I cannot be accused of having never touched this subject before. In particular, exploiting Starship now seems to be the only way to save the Artemis program, and the NASA OIG seems to agree. But what about after Artemis? Where can humans live in space?
Starship itself can serve as a human habitat in LEO, GEO, L5, Lunar orbit, the Lunar surface, deep space, Mars, or an asteroid. Additionally, Starship could be used to launch custom-designed modules to build stations at any of these places. Starship alone has about 1000 m^3 of internal volume, which is nearly double that of the ISS. Repurposing empty fuel and oxygen tanks more than doubles that volume. Starship’s welded stainless steel construction reduces the cost and complexity of modifications, particularly ones that do not affect structural performance. Starship could launch a space station for so little money that it’s possible they could be cheap enough to be supported by non government industrial, commercial, and tourist users, while being used disposably!
At the extreme, a Starship upper stage could be modified to form a wedge-shaped segment with a removable nose cone, then docked together to form a giant rotating wheel with artificial gravity.
Speaking of asteroids, why not use Starship to improve our study of asteroids? OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 are cool, but what if we could travel with 100 T of instruments, or a bunch of people, to a nearby asteroid for a while, then return to Earth. Forget ARM. Send Starship Chomper out to a nearby asteroid, take a big bite, then fly it right back to the cape.
Asteroid mining probably won’t pay, at least for Earth markets, but Starship can make conducting study and assay affordable by speculative explorers. No need for further hypotheticals about platinum asteroids. Send a Starship to the 10 most likely candidates, fly 100 T of each back to Earth, see what’s there.
While we’re sending Starships to every nearby asteroid in sight, we can also begin preventative study of all potential Earth impacting NEOs while we still have time. Precise tracking, surface study, even emplacement of contingency systems for redirection. All affordable, if we can work out how to make more than one of any given spacecraft.
Finally, I’ve always wanted to know if there are actually any vulcanoids, or small asteroids occupying a gravitationally stable region between Mercury and the sun. Let’s send a Starship down inside Mercury’s orbit with a big camera and find out.
Large scale planetary bases
Building Starship-based space stations is one thing, but Starship can also help construction of real bases on the Moon or Mars. No more decades of hand wringing over closing design trades on a $10b Moon “base” the size of a school bus. Starship is designed to enable “drag and drop” logistics. They can deliver so much stuff just unloading them at the destination could prove a major bottleneck.
There are a few dozen scientific research stations in Antarctica, mostly populated by scientists and mountaineers who actually, believe it or not, voluntarily want to be there. Surrounded by a thousand miles of frozen ice, jagged mountains, and millions upon millions of psychotically famished penguins with very sharp beaks. The largest of these stations is McMurdo Station, which houses up to 1500 people during the summer and is typically supplied by ship. Imagine a base of 1500 people on the rim of Shackleton Crater on the Moon. With a per-person mass overhead of 10 T, such a base would require only 150 Starship landings over perhaps five years to construct. Indeed, much of the base could simply be Starships with Whipple shields instead of TPS, pre-fabricated with the essential elements to support human operations. Let’s not overthink this. The Starship is a self-landing pressurized structure with >2000 cubic meters of internal volume.
The Mars base is even more ambitious but reflects SpaceX’s ultimate goal. A city of a million people living beneath a spacious transparent tensile inflatable greenhouse building Humanity 2.0. This is 99% finding and fixing widget manufacturing bottlenecks, so somewhat less exotic than the movies might have you believe. Still, a grand vision. And one that is categorically impossible without a Starship-class fully reusable high capacity high delta-V launcher.
Other In-Space Infrastructure
Starship can also be used to launch systems previously impossible due to launch cadence, mass, and volume constraints. I’m somewhat dubious about some of these applications but orbital tugs, fuel depots, space based solar power, and nuclear thermal rockets are all orders of magnitude less difficult in a world with Starship than one without.
Starlink isn’t strictly Starship logistical capacity, though it is enabled by it. Starlink is SpaceX’s orbital high speed internet megaconstellation. Every day I wake up and struggle to believe that this thing is actually real, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. We live in the future.
This section is concerned with potential applications for the Starlink constellation that have not been possible in the past with single satellite missions.
Starlink will ultimately be a network of tens of thousands of satellites connecting to hundreds of millions of user terminals located all over the Earth. Its radio encoding scheme adapts the signal rate to measured atmospheric opacity along the signal line of sight across 10 different frequency bands in real time. Collectively, the system measures trillions of baselines of Earth’s entire atmosphere every day. This data, fed into standard tomography algorithms such as those used by medical CT imagers, can resolve essentially all weather structure in the atmosphere. No more careful scrutiny of remote weather station pressure gauge measurements. No more reliance on single mission oxygen emission line broadening. Instead, complete real time resolution of the present state of the entire atmosphere, a gift for weather prediction and climate study.
Starlink satellites are equipped with perhaps the most versatile software defined radios ever put into mass production. Each antenna allows the formation of multiple beams at multiple frequencies in both send and receive. With sufficiently accurate position, navigation and timing (PNT) data from GPS satellites, Starlink satellites could perform fully 3D synthetic aperture radar (SAR) of the Earth’s surface, with enough bandwidth to downlink this treasure trove of data. Precise ocean height measurements. Precise land height measurements. Surface reflectivity. Crop health and hydration. Seismology and accumulation of strain across faults. City surveying. Traffic measurements in real time. Aircraft tracking for air traffic control. Wildlife study. Ocean surface wind measurements. Search and rescue. Capella has produced extraordinary radar images with a single satellite. Now imagine the resolving power with birds from horizon to horizon.
Starlink SAR is great for Earth observation, but the same principle can be applied looking outwards. Starlink is a network of thousands of software defined radios with highly precise PNT information and high speed data connections. It is practically begging to be integrated into a world-sized radio telescope. With 13000 km of baseline (trivially extendable with a handful of GTO Starlink launches) and the ability to point in any desired direction simultaneously, Starlink could capture practically holographic levels of detail about the local radio environment. Literally orders of magnitude better resolution than ground-based antennas like the Very Large Array. Cheaper than repairing Arecibo and independent of Earth’s rotation. Potentially capable of resolving exoplanets.
There’s no reason to do only passive radio astronomy. Starlink can exploit its exceptional resolving power and onboard amplifiers to perform active planetary radar, for examination of close-flying asteroids and transmission of radio signals to distant missions in support of the Deep Space Network. As of November 2021, all Starlink satellites are flying with lasercoms so in principle the DSN application could also support laser, as well as radio, communication with distant probes. No need to build even larger dishes than the 70 m monsters. The potential to greatly increase our data rates from distant probes.
And while Starlink can derive PNT from the GPS constellation, it need not depend on it forever. High capacity radio encoding schemes such as QAM4092 and the 5G standard contain zero-epoch synchronization data, meaning that any radio capable of receiving Starlink handshake signals is able to obtain approximate pseudorange information. What Starlink’s onboard clocks may lack in atomic clock-enabled nanosecond stability, they make up in sheer quantity of connections and publicly available information about their orbital ephemerides. Already a group from OSU has demonstrated <10 m accuracy, while a group based at UT Austin is developing a related method for robust PNT estimation using Starlink hardware. It seems likely to me that Starlink could support global navigation with few to no software changes and no hardware changes, improving the resilience of satellite navigation especially in a case where the relatively small GPS constellation is disabled. I won’t go into vast detail, but GNSS signals are not only used for pizza delivery, but also support a vast array of Earth science objectives, including the monitoring of tectonic drift.
Starlink has received its fair share of criticism, drawn perhaps by its overwhelming scale and potential impacts to ground-based astronomy. But Starlink can also be the single greatest scientific instrument ever built, a hyperspectral radio eye the size of the Earth, capable of decoding information about the Earth and the universe that is right up against the limits of physics.
Will We Do All This And More?
I don’t know. Maybe eventually. Starship removes the mass and volume constraints traditionally blamed for the expense of space exploration. Does that mean that come 2022, the decadals will all be revised to reflect this new reality? I doubt it, at least not right away. The expense of space exploration is multifactorial but Starship at least hands us the key to find another way, to write inventive contracts that incentivize continuous improvement and innovation and a reduction of instrument costs commensurate to the improvement in access that Starship brings. I, for one, would be thrilled to see a global recalibration of the scope of our ambition in recognition of the fact that, as a species, we are still capable of doing awesome things quickly, cheaply, and well.
52 thoughts on “Science upside for Starship”
Brilliant, as usual.
Would love to see a large readable version of the planetary pork chop plot.
I was able to zoom in on the png and just read the mission names.
(Can’t edit my first comment. Could be a browser problem.)
Wow. So the damage to ground-based austronomy doesn’t matter because in 20 years nobody will need it anymore?
I think damage to ground based astronomy may be over stated. We’ll need CMOS firmware that supports blinking from time to time but it’s not technically impossible.
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Wow! Better than science fiction! I fervently hope that even some of these ideas become reality!
Hyperventilating over here. Every person with even remote interest in a bright future should read this.
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Seems like nasa could buy one o them gigafactories and start churning out sats. Heck, they could even reuse the tesla chassis. At $100/kg launch costs, who cares what it looks like?
I love the idea of a torus ring being assembled from modified Starships, then spun up.
The orbital depot would be a niche application, but a useful one. It’d be useful if we’re at the point where we want to send hundreds or thousands of Starships to Mars during the launch windows, since you could pile up propellant in orbit over two years rather than rushing to get it up there during a several week launch window.
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I liked the idea of using shuttle main external tanks for same… In fact, I wound up believing the shuttles massive external tank going to waste, rather than forming the basis of an orbital infrastructure, was the biggest missed opportunity of STS.
Have you ever heard of the terrascope concept? It’s a telescope that uses atmospheric lensing. “A 1m detector version on a Hill radius is calculated to produce an amplification of ~45,000 for a lensing timescale of ~20 hours. But, in practice, the amplification is likely halved in order to avoid daylight scattering i.e. 22,500 for a 1-meter terrascope, or equivalent to a 150-meter optical/infrared telescope.”
Also, the same principle can be used to amplify radio waves for interplanetary internet and astronomy.
A swarm of these will destroy any need for professional ground telescopes.
“As of November 2021, all Starlink satellites are flying with lasercoms so in principle the DSN application could also support laser, as well as radio, communication with distant probes. No need to build even larger dishes than the 70 m monsters.”
Kinda doubt that those lasers support the kind of fractional phase locking across the entire constellation that would be required to avoid the large dishes. I suppose it could be an eventual upgrade, though.
I like the idea of the piecemeal huge telescope. Mass produced mirror segments, with integrated ion thrusters for station keeping, that just fly in formation to fractional wavelength precision. No point in a framework; On a time scale shorter than that needed for sound to travel across the frame several times, the pieces are just flying in formation anyway, and without the frame you can swap pieces in and out without disturbing the rest of the array. Just need some optical beacons to provide local navigational data.
If the focal length is large enough, the segments can even be optical flats, cheaper to manufacture!
A giant optical interferometer would be pretty tricky with existing Starlink hardware, but radio synthetic aperture is straight forward.
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Put a few hundred laser linked Starlink (or Starlink based) radio telescopes in 3753 Cruithne like orbits and have an Earth’s orbit sized telescope. You could watch Jupiter size planets orbit galactic Black holes and fall onto the accretion disk.
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What an interesting article that was!
I would like to tell you about an idea that I have about the SpaceX luner lander and how it should be used. Maybe you have already had similar toughts yourself or have heard about such.
We know (and I have made the required calculations myself also) that a fully fueled Starship can enter the lunar orbit from LEO, land the astronauts on the moon and even return to the lunar orbit.
We also know that it can’t return back to LEO or even into higher Earth orbit unless retanked in the lunar orbit.
Tanking in lunar orbit would need a tanker tanked in LEO… Feels too complicated and even useless.
If we leave the Lunar Starship on the Moon, it can deliver well over 100 metric tons there. How would the astronauts get back to lunar orbit then?
Well, we should have a separate Lunar Ascent stage attached to the (cut shorter) nose of the Lunar Starship. Doing so we would have the same kind of abort possibility during landing that LEM had in the Apollo program. The ascent stage would weigh just a few tons, having almost no efect to the payload capasity of the lander.
That stage could be reusable, waiting in lunar orbit untill a new Lunar SS arrives. After docking the LSS would fill the fuel tanks of the ascent stage with UMDH and N2P4 (I suppose a pressure fed engine cycle for maximum safety). When the astronauts arrive, they dock with the stage and enter it.
After succesful landing they move into to LSS trouh a tunnel in the bottom part of the ascent stage (the engines must be around that access tunnel).
The ascent stage could be manufactured by SpaveX or who ever, maybe a good way for NASA to “give something” to other companies as well and ease a bit the quarrel between billinares. 🙂
Summary of benefits of this approach:
-much fewer tanker flights required
– maximizes payload to the moon’s surface
– increased safety for the astronauts
What do you think about the idea?
As you have worked for
Caltech/JPL/NASA, let them know how to go to the moon the smart way. 🙂
I think Starship can fly LEO-Moon surface-LEO without refueling.
Crazy thought, but once in orbit, the Starship doesn’t need to much exceed 1/6th gravity acceleration. The engines that took it up from Earth would horse around a much larger weight in space, or landing on the Moon.
And an empty Starship looks a lot like an unequipped habitat.
So, mount two or three stripped down fuel ferries to the side of the lunar landing starship, as drop tanks. They remain on the Moon as space for a base, could even already be equipped with grid flooring, airlocks and windows behind removable panels.
They could even provide a larger spread of landing legs, in case of uneven surfaces.
Taking off from the Moon, then, the Starship could be mostly or entirely fueled, having emptied the drop tanks, and proceed directly back to LEO.
Could a space thether system to bring the cost of launch even lower be the best payload a competing/cooperating entity (NASA or other org) be the best logical investment? Jujitsu-ish and may lower a bit the stellar value of a working starship, but still a very strong net positive for space dev? Is that science fiction or an actual doable thing on the billion scale?
“Tanking in lunar orbit would need a tanker tanked in LEO… Feels too complicated and even useless.”
Too complicated? Once Starship refueling is perfected (in early 2023), refueling in low lunar orbit (LLO) will be no more difficult or complicated than refueling in LEO. Your idea requires development of another vehicle, the lunar ascent stage, that’s a totally unnecessary complication.
The round-trip Earth-to-Luna can be done with one lunar Starship launch and ten Starship tanker launches to LEO. All Starships are reused in this scenario. Nothing is parked permanently in lunar orbit or on the lunar surface.
Tanker #1 is launched to LEO and tankers #2, 3, 4, and 5 refuel #1.
Tanker #6 is launched to LEO and tankers #7, 8, 9, and 10 refuel #6.
The lunar Starship is launched to LEO and is refuel by tanker #1.
The lunar Starship and tanker #6 fly together to LLO. The tanker transfers 100t of methalox to the lunar Starship, which lands on the lunar surface, unloads incoming passengers and cargo, onloads departing passengers and cargo, and returns to LLO.
The tanker transfers another 100t of methalox to the lunar Starship and both return to the landing sites at or near Boca Chica.
There is no reason crew quarters need to be at the top of the stack. They could just as well be underneath all the tankage, right at surface level, with maybe descent engines at the rim. A return ship perched on top is a good idea, given the generous mass budget. There seems little point in lofting the whole apparatus again just to throw it away. Having an escape craft to ride down in seems advisable. I don’t think it would be necessary to have a tunnel through the middle; a single trip down and then up the outside seems pretty tolerable.
Another mission probably worth its salt, putting a few telescopes on solar system departing trajectories.
Firstly to get away from the light of the sun reflected from dust particles, and the IR glare from those particles.
Secondly to improve the baseline for parallax distance measurement that forms the base of our ladder of distances. Getting to really high speed (so we get results this generation) and powering a communication system that has a decent data rate over such large distances means a lot of weight and starship is really the first time such a project becomes possible. Voyager is about 140 AU out now (which would give us 2 orders of magnitude better parallax). Ideally you’d want to get to that distance in a decade or less. That means a big power supply for ion drive and communication. It also implies a long long tower (bridge/pole/nose) to separate the hot power supply, drive and MW comms laser/dish/mast from the cold telescope.
As a side benefit, you’d have visibility in all directions at once. Currently, and with all planned telescope missions, you can’t see anything on the other side of the sun. Which makes continuous observation of some objects impossible. The JWST really can’t see half the sky, as the telescope must operate in the shade of its umbrella at all times.
> It is telling that the Ariane 5’s entire launch career began in 2003 and will end with JWST, nearly four years after the penultimate launch.
That’s not true. Ariane 5 served multiple launches each year since 2000 and it’s career is far from over. Multiple launches are planned for Ariane 5. Just for instance: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/first-demand-driven-mission-gsat-24-to-be-dedicated-for-tata-sky-nsil-to-launch-satellite-on-ariane-5/articleshow/86687077.cms
Apparently my last comment got eaten. There are a few ideas that Starship opens up that you haven’t covered. Among them:
Seriously. A few hundred million should be able to get you a custom fitted ship. Billionaires spend more on super yachts, how much more cred would you get for the world’s first space yacht?
This also begs the question, who be the next Paul Allen, building an explorer cruiser for space and following in the footsteps of the Royal Geographical Society and others?
Your big telescope doesn’t need to be continuous mirror. A dozen mirrors around the rim would make it immediately useful.
Furthermore, you don’t need a rim. They can be free-floating, with station-keeping ion thrusters and gyros.
And, you don’t need just one image sensor. You can have a whole cloud of them milling around near the focus, so it points at lots of different things at the same time, picking up lots of different optical ranges, polarizations, filterings, at the same time.
As you add mirrors, it gets more sensitive, meaning you don’t need 40-hour observations like we did with Hubble. With a thousand mirrors, each with 20x the area of Hubble’s, you get the same light collected in 7 seconds, with overwhelmingly more resolving power. Each mirror you add incrementally shortens the needed observation time.
If you make it big enough, you can use *optically-flat* mirrors, maybe grown as single crystals IN SPACE! As it were. With silvering vacuum-deposited IN SPACE! (We will come to stop saying IN SPACE! soon.)
(Off-topic: has anybody worked ullage by circulating fuel in a circular cylindrical or spherical tank so that the bubbles move to the center line?)
“The revised version would have used a unique rotating annular aerospike engine: the engine and base of the launch vehicle would spin at high speed (720 rpm) to pump fuel and oxidizer to the rim by the rotation. “
It seems like the people who get how big a deal Starship is dont see much value in inflatable space habitats. I think the logic goes that inflatable space habitats are just there to get you volume but Starship gets you volume on the cheap anyway so who cares? I think that this is ignoring that inflatables offer a new frontier of mass production that goes even beyond what Starship can do.
Just the basic materials level should be enough to make us take notice. A 2000 cubic meter Starship is 85 tons of stainless steel probably at upwards of $1-$2/kg. $42-$85 in raw materials per cubic meter volume seems dirt cheap, right? Well not really… The primary material for an inflatable space habitat is polyurethane. It costs two or three times as much as the steel per ton but you get about 1000 times the volume for the same mass. The primary material costs of about a buck per cubic meter of volume makes even the low low price of a Starship look spendthrift. Of course materials aren’t everything but cheap materials tend to be the stuff that supports cheap production as well. Welding steel is an expensive activity. Polymer manufacturing is very expensive to scale but once it’s up and running the marginal costs are dirt cheap.
When I see that 32 segment space station made by daisy chaining Starships together for 64 thousand cubic meters of volume I think that we really should be thinking bigger. It’s like envisioning a city by saying that you could take a bunch of shipping containers off a container ship and turn those into homes. One mid-rise apartment offers the space of hundreds of those containers. Instead of trying to convert the containers into living space, we should be using them as our logistical backbone.
Inflatable space station segments could be manufactured cheaply enough to make proper use of Starship capabilities, dozens launched per day. Dont settle for joining together 32 segments, join together hundreds of identical cheaply mass produced segments to make a proper orbital town with a million cubic meters of space for people to live. With the capability to build and launch thousands of segments per year you could churn out several such towns a year. Make one of the towns an astronomy lab, a few thousand astronomers and their families could live within a short commute of the orbital telescope. You could set up a research base for whatever you want; materials science, gerontology, engineering, literature, there doesn’t need to be a shortage of space for everyone. You need to supply the towns from earth of course, at a price of several dollars per kilogram, but that’s not unbearable. Several tons of foodstuffs and finished goods per person per year would come out in the tens of thousands per capita and would be compatible with a modern service economy.
This and then some. Polymers don’t produce secondary radiation when hit by cosmic rays, unlike metal. You actually want to use as little metal as possible if you want people living there long term. It’s also much easier to repair a thermopolymer structure than a metal one too. Remember also the ships themselves will be at a premium for shipping for a while despite Musk’s mass production intentions. They will not be a primary source of material for a while, if ever.
Also think about living area and gravity. A 100 meter diameter circle is at the bare minimum for a viable low gravity habitat. That’s not very big. You could probably squeeze one into a Starship though, meaning a much roomier and comfortable trip to Mars. Tying into my space yacht idea above, I could even see a decent sized ring that would be collapsible. This is a logistics thing: instead of making a ship in orbit, you’d make it on earth, fly it up, go somewhere, and at the end you can close up and bring it all back to earth to get refurbished before your next trip. Larger ships could use a Starship as a core, and not intend to return to earth, but these would be older ships that are no longer viable for launch work.
This is very good. Thank you.
Might want to also mention defense against asteroids and comets on a collision course to Earth. And possibly a laser array to power solar sail probes on interstellar missions.
One of the biggest problems Starship is going to have in performing planetary science is that it’s a disaster with respect to planetary protection. Up until now, all probes reaching a surface that might be interesting in terms of biology, (i.e., all Class IV missions) have two properties that Starship can’t have:
1) They’ve been small. All of the Class IV regulations have bioburden restrictions for both spores per exposed area and total spores. Landing something with almost 3000m² of surface area (lots of nooks and crannies in the thrust structure, the elonerons, and the inter-tile gaps) would almost certainly exceed the total bioburden, even if it could be properly treated. But it can’t, because…
2) They’ve also been bio-reduced and fairing-encapsulated in a clean room, so the external surface that lands is clean. In contrast, the Starship fairing that lands on the target is the same one that sat in a Texas salt marsh.
I’m pretty sure that everybody agrees that human missions to Mars happen at some point, and that they completely change how we think about all forms of planetary protection. But until the human rules are ironed out, I suspect that a lot of people are going to take a dim view of fooling much with the robotic rules.
The one exception may have to do with changes that come from suggestions by the recent National Academies report, which suggests that robotic missions that land in places with only patchy subsurface water, and that don’t drill deeper than one meter below the surface, are probably unlikely to spread contamination. That’s not great for SpaceX, especially since they need water to work through ISRU technology for methalox production, but it’s at least a way to flight test missions all the way to the martian surface.
As for icy moon missions, Starship can’t even get close to fulfilling the requirements, which are literally orders of magnitude more stringent than Mars.
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Clearly innovation in PP is also needed.
“Innovation” and “COSPAR” are pretty much oxymorons.
As I read your view on Starship, which is also largely my view, nobody quite knows what to do with the potential boon that’s about to be handed to them. You’ve been looking closely at a lot of the technological implications of every mission planner in the world suddenly get slapped upside the head, likely about six months from now when this puppy becomes real, and the last bits of denial fall away.
But there are diplomatic implications, too. Those are a lot murkier, because the US has a lot of pending international diplomacy involving space, especially with the full freak-out setting in about SSA and debris mitigation. SpaceX is big business for the US and generates a huge amount of soft power. But there’s a bigger picture involved, and diplomats aren’t big on iterative development methodologies. Indeed, international diplomacy makes waterfall development look lightning fast.
There are potentially ways to make Starship a lot cleaner, but I doubt that any of them would pass current regulatory muster. Three things:
1) I have a half-baked “Starship In a Bag” idea: You deploy an extremely large sprung-structure cylinder in LEO with a docking port on the inner far end and a hatch on the near end. Starship slides into it, docks, and the hatch closes. Then you pump hydrogen peroxide vapor into the cylinder at 100-200Pa and let the Starship soak for a few days. The sprung structure only has to be a vaguely leaky pressure vessel at the H2O2 partial pressure used for peroxide sterilization on Earth.
2) Two interior spaces that are incredibly difficult to clean: The stacked Starship interstage / thrust structure, and all the stuff that’ll surround the upper LCH4 tank dome. Both likely have electronics that can’t survive the necessary dry heat sterilization (which could otherwise be pumped into the interstage after stacking), but I’ll bet that there’s a way to bio-reduce the heat-sensitive stuff using existing state of the art, then package it in a heat-resistant set of bags. If the bag assemblies can support sterile coolant loops pulling out the heat that conducts into the bag, you could wind up with a fairly low spore count on the non-bag components while keeping the sensitive stuff that got cleaned the old-fashioned way safe for flight.
3) I’m pretty sure that SpaceX will wind up supporting a payload processing mode where the whole nose goes into the PPF for payload “encapsulation”, then is hoisted onto the already-stack propulsion section of the Starship. The current User Guide sorta-kinda implies this, if you read it the right way, and too many operators are gonna be freaked out by loading their payloads in via a high bay. So if you have the nose in a PPF, you can potentially ensure Category IV conformance for everything in the payload bay. That doesn’t fix the fairing being dirty, but it does give you a way to unload the payload and transport it far enough from the ship to perform Category IVb or IVc missions.
#1 and #2 aren’t compliant, because compliance requires in-room assays to be conducted to verify that the microbial reduction actually worked. You can’t do that in LEO, and you can’t do it on the launch pad. So there would have to be good enough data that a lot enough heat or peroxide soak was adequate to get you to Category IV cleanliness. But perhaps a Starship landing dirty close to but not on water, per the National Academies recommendations, could still get big, IVc-compliant payloads to nearby water resources.
That would at least let them start developing water mining and ISRU tech while COSPAR wrings its hands about crewed missions.
Note: If Category IV is a nightmare for outbound Starship landings, Category V is an even bigger nightmare for returning Starships to Earth. But that’s part and parcel of the whole “what do we do with humans?” discussion that’s going on now.
Once you get past the idea of colonization, planetary protection goes out the window. Someone is going to leave a bucket of sewage out in a sandstorm or something similarly inane, and then it’s off to the races. You might ban non science landings for a certain amount of time, but enough people will be suitably unhappy with that to give it a very limited life.
While Starship might not be able to be sanitized, it can transport containerized, properly treated cargoes. So, NASA needs to get off it’s arse and make sure the first few ships to Mars doesn’t just not land, but has enough science on board to take care of anything you want to look at before we start spilling effluent.
And oh hey, guess what Starship makes affordable, and our host has advocated for?
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Nobody is “past the idea of colonization” at this point. Nobody has a solid plan for landing even a scientific exploration crew on Mars. I’m not worried about that–yet.
To land even an uncrewed Starship on Mars, SpaceX will need to get a launch license from the FAA. So the real question is whether the FAA can grant such a license with out a conformant planetary protection plan. This is where things get complicated. Here are four facts that don’t quite fit together:
1) The US is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which means that it has a responsibility to protect planetary environments for scientific research and to protect Earth’s environment from potential contamination from other planets, and to enforce that responsibility on US-flagged missions, which of course includes all SpaceX missions.
2) Missions under NASA auspices are required to conform to PP regulations. Back in the Olden Times (2016), this perfectly adequate, because any potential Mars mission was also a NASA mission.
3) Private missions much get a launch license, but the FAA has no authority–yet–to deny a launch license due to deficiencies in the planetary protection plan.
So we have a situation where the US basically doesn’t have the regulatory framework in place to fulfill its treaty obligations when it comes to private spaceflight. But the treaty obligations still exist.
How does this end? Three ways:
a) The FAA throws up its hands and issues a launch license, which causes the State Department and the international community to lose their minds. SpaceX gets to go to Mars, but everybody–especially the US government–is extremely unhappy with them.
b) Congress sees the diplomatic crisis coming and empowers the FAA to make rules enforcing the planetary protection regulations that NASA and COSPAR already have. Then SpaceX is screwed until the rules get modified.
c) New PP rules are promulgated with SpaceX’s input, and they get to do some things they’d like to do but not others. Eventually, COSPAR hammers out rules for crewed missions, and things continue on, likely with nobody completely happy, but with progress continuing.
Scenario #a is so outrageous and damaging to US interests that I really don’t see it happening. Granting a launch license for a non-conformant mission is perilously close to withdrawing from the OST, which isn’t going to happen at a time when we’re desperately trying to reach international agreements on space situational awareness, debris mitigation practices, and (a stretch goal) ASAT use.
Scenario #b and #c probably occur in sequence. The FAA slaps down SpaceX for a synod or two, while SpaceX gets aggressive with COSPAR and NASA to get new rules hammered out. Then they get a couple of synods worth of uncrewed test data while the human rules get promulgated, and then life goes on (no pun intended).
The National Academies report provides a way forward for uncrewed missions, but COSPAR is going to have to wring its hands for a couple of years before everybody’s happy. I really don’t see Starship attempting a Mars landing much before the 2026 synod, so there’s an outside chance that the regulatory framework might keep up with the technology. But that would kinda be a first.
I think there’s going to be at least moderate ugliness before this gets negotiated.
I strongly suspect that the US won’t pull out of the OSP but they will (continue to) bend it as suits them.
My concern is that going rogue on the PP aspects of the OST probably does not suit US national interests. Elon’s and the space nerds’ agenda are not the US government’s agenda.
SSA, orbital best practices, and soft-landing an incipient ASAT war are much higher priorities, and none of those are served by handing the other side ammunition in the form of non-strategic OST violations.
I don’t think CCP or Russia cares about official appearances or tallying violations. They’ve demonstrated repeatedly that they can do whatever they want whenever they want with zero consequences. The OST is hardly enforceable at this point.
I don’t think they care that much either, but they’ll be happy to use any questionable behavior by the US as a pretext to avoid any international pressure. Bringing that pressure to bear effectively is a high priority for the US.
I like the idea of Starlink as a giant radio telescope.
This is an excellent review of what’s possible, and what changes fundamentally with Starships – should SpaceX succeed here. Should WE succeed, as really this will be a win for everyone on Earth. In the near term, I see more “IXPE” moments, these tiny payloads on this large rocket, which tells us right there in physical form that something has really changed, just no one knows what to do about it yet, other than grabbing the cheapest ride.
There are some intriguing and exciting ideas in the article (and the comments!), but missing is the one paradigm critical to the exploitation of space: Operating in space. There are myriad manufacturing, construction, maneuvering, and handling operations that will best be realized by permanent factories and warehouses and a space-based population. We will have truly become a space-faring society when we can manufacture and assemble Starships or their equivalent, haul things around with “space forklifts” and “space tugs”, and when there is a permanent, dedicated expert workforce living and working in space.
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Just finished watching this interview with Janusz Petkowskihttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFYR3kDyhu8&t=423s
And reading (skimming) the “Venus Life Finder Mission Study”https://venuscloudlife.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/VLFReport_12092021.pdf
Their mission campaign starts with a 1kg science payload launched on a Rocket Lab Electron, and ends with a sample return on a Falcon Heavy-class vehicle circa 2029.
A pretty good example for your thesis.
Another possible use arising from low launch costs: a rechargeable chemical laser in orbit dedicated to zapping the smaller pieces of space debris, so that the pieces de-orbit. We have lasers powerful enough to do that job, but to be effective, it needs to be in spaceand it needs to have the capacity or refilled capacity to be useful.
You can do all the stuff the shuttle External Tank apps guys wanted to do with Starship. Likely better, as Starship has integral propulsion and cabin already installed and operable on as many as you want to put into space. Cheers –
The institutional malice of our administrative state is ensuring Starship will never fly. There will always be some “environmental impact statement” to stall it.
Scientists must put pressure on their institutions to curb agencies like NOAA. In my view they are acting like courts and denying SpaceX its sixth-amendment right to a speedy process.
Link on my name to the original article.
Q: What do you get when you build a spaceport in the middle of a Wildlife Management Area?
A: Rules. This was all predictable, and predicted. Musk is playing chicken with the law, and demanding that the law clear his way. He could have built anywhere between there and Corpus Christi. Or in Florida. Or Grenada.
If he needs to, he can land somewhere else — on a boat, say, or in a big box. He can build another Mechazilla somewhere else, like Florida. (Which, in fact, he is doing.) It is not anything the rest of us need pay any attention to.
P.S. Thanks for the link. Digging deep, very enlightening!
Looks like there are reasons for the rest of us to pay attention, after all.
SpaceX’s filings with federal agencies have what must be deliberate omissions that are prosecuted as felonies when other people do that. It appears they are buying a ready-made natural gas treatment plant, but their filings don’t reveal any plans to emit the pollutants involved in using one.
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Well, if you know about it then hopefully so will the FAA / EPA. Sounds to me like you’re “hollerin’ before you’re hurt”. You are assuming facts not in evidence; perhaps SpaceX acquired the plant to preclude anyone buying it and firing it up.
My amateur space plans:
– Turn several of the craters on the far side of the moon into telescopes. Not sure if this is actually easier than your giant telescope idea; I’m assuming mirror manufacturing shouldn’t be too hard to do on the moon if we ship the factory equipment? Also I’d like a moon-sized particle collider — should be easy if we don’t need the vacuum tubes, right?
– Might as well deploy starlink networks around the moon and Mars now so that any other equipment we send has a communication link. The moon can be linked directly to the Earth’s internet. Mars not so much, nothing on the internet works with those round trip times. So deploy a few datacenters, set up a bulk data transfer service and work with cloud providers to provide a site mirroring solution. If a website is operationally important you may want to employ some SREs on Mars to respond faster to problems.
– The moon needs a resort with a nice view of Earth, a swimming pool with a 200 ft high dive, a trampoline gym, a basketball court with 15 ft nets, and maybe a skate park? All for scientific research of course.
Like it very much, but the more important thing will be, how to find a way to make money out of it. Because all of those are great, but it costs. But when we will find a way to earn of it, the revolution will came, with those things following.
So please get as much people to space as we could and someone will surely find out how.