In an impromptu late-night tweet last month, Elon Musk announced that he was changing the names of Space X’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) booster and Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) to “Super Heavy” and “Starship,” respectively.
Together, the two units make up the two-stage space vehicle that Musk plans to use for manned missions to the Moon and Mars in the not too distant future.
On Monday, in the early hours of Christmas Eve, the Tesla and Space X CEO took to Twitter again for another spontaneous tweet, this time sharing a photo of the top section of the under-construction second stage with the caption “Stainless Steel Starship.”
He did, however, follow up with some more information on the enormous stainless steel wonder, so massive that the work trucks seen parked around it in the photo look dwarfed and insignificant in comparison.
The “test hopper” – as he calls the prototype Starship being built at the Space X test facility in Texas – will have a stainless steel skin, which Musk says will perform better at re-entry temperatures than lightweight carbon fiber.
Answering a question about the use of stainless steel, Musk said that while the use of the material was in common with NASA’s early Atlas rocket, it would be a different alloy mix.
“Stainless steal [sic] is correct, but different mixture of alloys and new architecture,” said the billionaire entrepreneur.
“Actually, the only significant design element in common with early Atlas is stainless steel and we’re using a different alloy mix,” he clarified further.
The Tesla boss also said that the Raptor rocket engines that would power the two stages were also being “radically redesigned.”
Musk promised to reveal additional details about the Starship, but only after it completes the “hopper” test flight, expected to happen sometime in the first quarter of 2019.
“I will do a full technical presentation of Starship after the test vehicle we’re building in Texas flies, so hopefully March/April,” he tweeted.
“It’s still difficult to determine how long until tests actually take place, but from a historical perspective, it could be a year or more from the November application date,” William Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International, was quoted as saying.
“That means tests are still possible in late 2019,” he told ‘Inverse.’
Ostrove went on to say that with Space X continually making design changes to the Starship, it’s “difficult to assess significance” in so far as the “meaning of any test” is concerned.
“It’s not clear if they are done fine-tuning the design; however, it’s likely that at least small changes will continue to be made to the design,” he continued.
Ostrove is of the opinion that “hopper” flights will, in fact, lead to more design changes as these tests are likely to identify unforeseen areas of improvement.
“That being said, any time a company can conduct an actual liftoff of a rocket, even if it’s a failure, it is a step toward completion,” he told the digital media company.
“Those tests are invaluable for gathering real-world performance data and fine-tuning engineering models,” he concluded.
Once complete, the Starship – the second-stage spacecraft – will sit atop the gigantic Super Heavy rocket – the first-stage booster – together making up the two-stage rocket that will stand 387 feet tall – almost as tall as a 40-story building.
Musk’s interplanetary space vehicle is going to be taller, heavier, and more powerful than the 360-foot three-stage Saturn V rocket developed by NASA for its Apollo moon program and later used to launch Skylab.
Since, both, Super Heavy and Starship are designed to be fully reusable, they will represent a more cost-effective space transportation system that will ultimately replace the costlier-to-operate Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon.
Designed for interplanetary flights, the rocket will also serve all Earth-orbit needs and, if Musk is to be believed, “later versions” will even visit other star systems, which would do justice to its name “Starship.”
In fact, Musk confirmed that in his rebuttal to a tweet from one Michael Wolman who wrote, “Unless this “starship” is sent on a mission to another star system it can’t be called a starship.”
Musk retorted with, “Later versions will.”
Well, if you are wondering how he’s going to make that happen, you’re not alone.
The nearest known star system other than our own is the Alpha Centauri system, which is more than four light years away, and our technology is way, way too far from achieving the speed of light needed to embark on a star-bound journey.
To put things in perspective, the distance that light travels in a second (186,282 miles) is more than what the Parker Solar Probe – the fastest human-made spacecraft – can do in an hour (155,000 miles).
In the coming years, the solar probe is expected to reach a top speed of 450,000 miles per hour; compare that with 670,000,000 (670 million) miles per hour that light travels at and you’ll get a better idea of the kind of disparity we’re talking about here.
Now, that’s a colossal gap to bridge, but with Musk, you never know, as the eccentric entrepreneur has an uncanny knack of surprising us with things we least expect and, for all you know, he may do that with yet another random tweet.