In a few weeks, Spacex will unveil the latest design iteration of its Starship rocket: the vehicle intended to take humans to the Moon and Mars. These annual presentations, which began in 2016, are much anticipated by fans of space and space exploration. This year will be no different in that regard and the anticipation is certainly building. Here is a look at several things we might expect to be unveiled or revealed by Elon Musk, as well as some questions that deserve to be answered.
What We Expect
The “Superheavy” Booster Unveil
Musk loves a touch of dramatic flair. Last year, he gave his presentation standing alongside the Mark 1 Starship prototype. (Pro tip: The “Starship” rocket is a two stage vehicle. The upper stage is known as “Starship” while the lower stage is referred to as “Superheavy” or the “booster.” Collectively, they are also known as “Starship”) This time, Musk could choose to stand in front of Starship SN8, but I am willing to bet that Superheavy, will form the primary backdrop for this year’s presentation. For Musk, it wont be enough to stand next to the Starship upper stage again, he will want to stand next to something bigger, in a demonstration of progress.
A Design Update
For space enthusiasts and technophiles alike, these presentations have been a great opportunity to get an early look at the latest design thinking and modelling. Thus far, each subsequent presentation has featured rocket designs that are radically different from each other, as modelling has evolved and improved. This time around, I would expect to be relatively few design changes. Per Musk, the design is “coalescing” and while there will certainly be evolutionary changes from last year’s presentation, it wont look substantially different to the untrained eye. But, we can take solace in the fact that the vehicle that is presented this year will be quite representative of the Starship design that will reach orbit, probably next year.
Burning Questions That Need to Be Answered
If there is anything that has disappointed me with Starship summits in years past, it is the tantalizing lack of details. The last two presentations in particular, have opened up more questions than answers. Some of this may be due to the fact that Starship’s design was evolving so quickly, but now that this evolution is slowing, I think it is time for Spacex to address some burning questions that we all have.
Will the initial payload capacity of Starship live up to expectations?
Each successive design iteration has seen the payload capacity of this rocket shrink. In 2016, Starship promised 300 tons to orbit. In 2017, that was reduced to 150 tons, and in 2018 it had fallen to >100 tons. For the record, 100 tons is a lot, and easily places Starship in the superheavy-lift rocket category. It would be nice to know, now that the design is maturing, whether this performance will hold, especially for early versions of the rocket that may not be as mass efficient.
What kind of materials are used for heat shielding?
Is this indeed a TUFROC-like material as many have speculated? Will they still be mechanically affixed to the hull as previously planned? Spacex has been unusually tight-lipped on this topic. This may be due to uncertainty as the design has evolved, but it may also be a consequence of ITAR restrictions that protect sensitive American technology.
Is Earth-to-Earth transportation still on the table?
And if so, will this be done with Starship or a specialized follow-on design? In 2017, Spacex showed off the potential for Starship to be used for terrestrial transportation, making it possible to travel anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. Such transportation technology has the potential of revolutionizing travel and human connectivity. But since 2017, Musk has said little on this topic.
Waiting with Bated Breath
If past Starship presentations are anything to go by, it is unlikely that we will get answers to all of these questions. But I do expect that this presentation will provide some additional clarity on the design and timeline of this groundbreaking rocket. Starship promises to be one of the greatest technological achievements of the 21st century. Hopefully we get our questions answers, and hopefully this time next year we are witnessing orbital flights of this leviathan.