SpaceX Starship : The Future of Space Transportation?
SpaceX starship systems is set to launch to orbit for the first time today, April 17th. Will it herald a change in space transportation economics?
Today Tuesday 17th April SpaceX will attempt its first orbital Starship system launch. There will be a number of firsts including the size and thrust (1200tonnes of propellant and 1500tonnes of thrust) and number of simultaneously firing engines (33) on the launch vehicle, the largest ever; the fact that the vehicle has been designed to allow a crew of around 100 to travel to Mars, and most notably that the entire vehicle including, for the first time ever, the upper stage is designed to be fully reusable. Although the company has planned-in booster reuse since its humble beginnings with Falcon 1, the founder Elon quotes (in Eric Berger's 'Liftoff - the early days that launched SpaceX') that 'one of the hardest engineering problems known to man is making a reusable orbital rocket' - nobody has succeeded and for good reason'. Can they do this? The numerous technical & operational challenges ranging from thermal protection of the re-entering Starship upper stage, to capturing the landing super heavy stage on a gantry aside will I suspect in due course be solved, going on SpaceX' past performance with Falcon 9. So read on for what this may mean for the space industry...
And also see below for a great little infographic produced by Jonathan Amos and his BBC News team (see more at https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-65294084) showing some of the features of StarShip.
What are Starship's implications for reducing the cost of space launch? Falcon 9 already has around 2/3 of the commercial satellite launch market , stemming from its highly competitive prices of around $3000/kg to LEO and just over $12000/kg to GTO GeoStationary Transfer Orbit, assuming you buy the entire rocket. Even the base price of a rideshare package of between 100 and 400kg is only $5000-$10000/kg, or about $1-2M to put the equivalent of a microsatellite into Low Earth Orbit. This is substantially below any other competitor, and also poses a challenge for small launchers whose business case is built around capturing responsive, dedicated and flexible launch business at a reasonable price point to sustain at least a few launches a year. Starship thanks to its reusability has been widely quoted as targeting $10M per launch, and at a payload capability of 100tonnes into low orbit, this is $100/kg, about 30x less than the current market leader! Starship is also rumoured to have a propellant costs of only $900,000 per launch, so the potential price per launch with all hardware reused and some modest ops and refurbishment costs has the potential to be even lower. But - even if SpaceX sums are wide of the mark, and Starship costs at least in the early years as much as a Falcon-9 ( around $67M) - thats under $750/kg or 4x less than the current cost to launch with Falcon 9. While the cost per kg is not as important to many as the total cost to launch any given payload, the already competitive rideshare costs will also fall over time. Given that we can build highly capable spacecraft weighting a few kg or 10s of kg, at a launch cost of $100/kg, delivery of complete space systems for only $1000-$10000 into orbit (plus integration and licensing fees), is less than the cost of many airline fares! This implies a stepchange in the cost of doing business in space may be on the horizon for everyone. Even if Starship launches infrequently and to a limited range of orbits, waiting for the SpaceX 'bus' to take you to an orbital transfer depot, rather like taking the bus or train to a hub, and then making further arrangements to reach your preferred destination, may be the future for space transportation.
Do leave a comment, especially on what you think this might mean for both large and small competing launch providers from ArianeSpace to Orbex.