SpaceX may soon launch the largest rocket in the history of mankind. If this is only a first orbital test flight for the time being, we know about this interplanetary and fully reusable spacecraft designed to take astronauts to the Moon and Mars. However, SpaceX boss Elon Musk has even bigger ambitions. Indeed, this spacecraft could radically change the way we explore the Solar System.
This incredible rocket being developed in Texas consists of a giant spacecraft named Starship, capped on top of a large booster named Super Heavy. Both can land on Earth to be reused, which significantly reduces costs while allowing a greater rate of launches. Eventually, the entire vehicle will be able to lift one hundred metric tons of cargo and people into space.
In mid-November, while speaking at a virtual meeting organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine of the United States, Elon Musk discussed the scientific potential of his project. “It is extremely important that we can become a multiplanetary species as soon as possible,” he said. “Along the way, we could learn a lot about the nature of the universe,” because this ship will be able to carry “a lot of scientific instruments,” much more than is currently possible. “Imagine an object of one hundred tons on the surface of Europe,” he stressed again.
As said above, in addition to its lifting capacity, the Starship is also designed to be “cheap”. While agencies like NASA and ESA have to carefully choose a few missions to finance with ultra-limited budgets, the affordability of the Starship could allow missions that would otherwise not even be considered.
“The low cost of access has the potential to really be a game-changer for scientific research,” says Andrew Westphal of the University of California, Berkeley, pointing to flights under two million dollars. “You can then imagine privately funded missions and consortia of citizens coming together to steal things”.
With all this potential in mind, scientists are already starting to imagine what the Starship could offer us. Earlier this year, a paper published by Jennifer Heldmann of the NASA Ames Research Center explored some of these scientific opportunities.
One of the big advantages would be the non-need to systematically miniaturize the instruments. For example, “you could deliver a big drilling rig,” says Heldmann. “You could then dig for almost a kilometer, as we do on Earth,” he said. This would allow unprecedented access to the interior of the Moon and Mars and potential resources. “Before, such an idea was a little crazy,” says the researcher. Nevertheless, with the Starship, “you can do it and still have room to spare”. He added: “What else do you want to bring? « .
Since it will be able to return to Earth, SpaceX’s Starship could also make it possible to bring back large quantities of samples. Such a volume of material taken from various places could shed light on a lot of mysteries, such as the volcanic history of the Moon or the question of Martian extraterrestrial life.
Several ambitious projects
Eventually, the spacecraft could also allow for more “extravagant” missions like getting to Neptune. This is the idea of an international group of scientists called Conex (for Conceptual Exploration Research). Neptune has indeed been visited only once (a lightning passage of the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989). Since then, it has been difficult to truly understand this icy world and its largest moon, Triton.
These researchers then imagine a spacecraft named Arcanum capable of probing this distant system. Problem: such a spacecraft would weigh more than twenty tons, four times more than the largest spacecraft to date, the Cassini-Huygens mission that explored Saturn from 2004 to 2017. To date, no existing rocket could launch such a craft. The Starship, however, would be capable of it. In addition, the mission could also be equipped with a telescope, allowing studies of the Outer Solar System and facilitating the hunt for exoplanets.
Other ideas include using Starship to send a probe into orbit around Jupiter’s moon Io, which again would require substantial lifting capacity. With such a mass, we could then carry enough fuel and radiation protection on board.
Other ideas are even more speculative. In particular, Philip Lubin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, calculated that a sufficiently large spacecraft such as the Starship could be used to hit an asteroid threatening the Earth. Such a mission could indeed carry enough explosives to pulverize an object as large as the one that caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Its fragments would then safely burn up in the atmosphere before they had a chance to reach our planet.
Still many challenges
There are, of course, very good reasons to be cautious. Indeed, the Starship made only a few test flights, only one of which ended successfully. The Super Heavy booster, meanwhile, has still not taken off. And together these two machines will form an incredibly massive and complex structure that may still encounter development problems. In addition, the sending of a Starship to the Moon or Mars will inevitably rely on multiple refueling missions in Earth orbit, which has still not been tested.
Nevertheless, there are really many reasons to be enthusiastic. From the inner Solar System to the outer approaches and perhaps beyond, such a spacecraft could well open a whole new era of space science.