If you think “Enterprise” when you hear “Starship” prepare to think of something borderline sci-fi that actually exists.
Elon Musk has revamped what was previously known as the BFR (technically Big Falcon Rocket, but use your imagination) into the reusable launch system of the future that has been renamed Starship. Super Heavy is the new name for the lower booster system that will blast it into space. He’s been relentlessly teasing the test article via Twitter, with this photo as the big reveal:
“Stainless Steel Starship” is the conical section on the left, next to a cylindrical unit whose landing legs make it look like a sort of metal space spider. The test article or “hopper” has been in development for low-altitude flight tests, and will eventually pull off low-altitude flights up to about 1,640 feet and high-altitude flights up to ten times that. It will also have all the muscle of Musk’s final vision—just a little less height.
SpaceX hasn’t yet made a test flight schedule public. What we do know is that the company did file an application with the Federal Communications Commission for a two-year experimental license to support in-flight communications with the hopper, which should start taking off this spring. This might be slightly ambitious considering that it was originally supposed to start its run of test flights by late 2019, Musk has never been anything but ambitious.
Musk’s teaser tweets also confirmed that he would be ditching the original carbon composite materials meant for the hopper and going with with stainless steel. Carbon composites are ideal for space travel because they are lightweight with super strength, but steel is a heavy metal from the 300 series group of alloys, and while it may be heavier, it won’t lose its strength when exposed to high temperatures. Steel’s slightly better strength-to-weight performance at cryogenic temperatures is a must for Starship’s liquid oxygen propellant tanks. Having a stainless steel surface also means that the vehicle will need much less thermal protection.
Of course, there is a downside to having thermal protection built in. Steel can get hot enough to melt paint.
Starship is not the only SpaceX redesign looking to hit the skies soon. It will be propelled by three of the company’s Raptor engines that run on methane and liquid oxygen. With a financial boost from the U.S. Air Force, SpaceX has been developing these for several years. Musk cryptically tweeted about the redesign but left out any further details except for the “superalloy” SX500 that has been specifically developed for Raptor. SX500 can handle searing oxygen-rich gas at up to 12,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.
Watching something like this shoot through the atmosphere totally beats a New Year’s ball drop.