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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explains why we need a 'whole new architecture' for space travel

SpaceX'sfirst Starship prototype (left) stands next to one of the Falcon 1 rocket first stages at the company's South Texas site in September 2019.
SpaceX'sfirst Starship prototype (left) stands next to one of the Falcon 1 rocket first stages at the company's South Texas site in September 2019.
(Image: © SpaceX via Twitter)

WASHINGTON — "Why does Soyuz still fly?"

That was a question about Russia's workhorse spacecraft posed by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk at this year's Satellite 2020 conference here. In a keynote conversation yesterday (March 9), Musk wondered aloud about the dangers of spaceflight stagnating in low Earth orbit, which he called the "local maximum."

"I think we need to be very careful of getting stuck keeping a local maximum," Musk said. 

Low Earth orbit, which stretches about 300 to 1,200 miles above Earth's surface, already holds the International Space Station (ISS), as well as many satellites. He noted that NASA's space shuttle program, which operated from 1981 to 2011 and launched 135 missions, was "something that was really stuck in a local maximum for a long time," and never progressed past low Earth orbit.

Related: SpaceX's Starship and Super Heavy rocket in pictures

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets have also flown to the ISS several times, and the company's space capsule, Dragon, has as well — delivering cargo in an uncrewed version and once carrying a dummy astronaut. (The first Crew Dragon flight with astronauts is expected to launch later this year.  However, the Dragon capsule is only "capable of taking a few people at what is still a very high cost to Earth orbit.")

To avoid the local maximum trap, the future of space transport needs "a whole new architecture, including reusable rockets. 

SpaceX's massive Starship rocket, which is intended to carry cargo and crew to Mars, was designed with this rapid reusability in mind. When fully functional, Musk said that Starship should be able to be relaunched within an hour of landing, with only nominal maintenance like refilling propellant. He envisions launching the massive spacecraft on three flights a day.

Musk also touched on SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation that will bring high-speed internet all over the world. 

The upward of 30,000 satellites are scheduled to bring internet services to hard-to-reach communities that telecommunications companies can't provide with landlines or cell towers. It could also bring in about $30 billion in revenue, Musk said. SpaceX launched its first 60 satellites in May 2019 and currently has 300 satellites in orbit, making it the biggest satellite constellation in history.

However, the scientific community has warned that such a surge in satellite numbers could overwhelm the night sky, damaging astronomical observations and even change how the public sees the night sky with just their eyes. But Musk insisted that Starlink will have zero impact on scientific observations. 

He said that now that those initial 60 satellites are stable in their orbits, "I'd be impressed if somebody can actually tell me where all of them are. I mean, it can't be that big of a deal."

"I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever to astronomical discoveries," Musk added. "Zero, that's my prediction. We will take corrective action if it's above zero."

After a smattering of nervous laughter from the crowd, the SpaceX CEO backtracked and said that the company is "actually working with senior members of the science community and astronomers to minimize the potential for reflection of the satellites," to make sure observations aren't affected. 

Follow JoAnna Wendel on Twitter @JoAnnaScience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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  • JohnP
    Admin said:
    SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says humanity needs a "whole new architecture" to fly in space beyond low Earth orbit.

    SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explains why we need a 'whole new architecture' for space travel : Read more
    Reply
  • JohnP
    While I applaud Elon for SpaceX and his visions are exciting in to themselves, I do think that adding so many satellites for internet connectivity will cause problems with night time access to the beauty of our universe. Hubris can cause tunnel vision as to what one hopes to achieve.
    Reply
  • Torbjorn Larsson
    JohnP said:
    While I applaud Elon for SpaceX and his visions are exciting in to themselves, I do think that adding so many satellites for internet connectivity will cause problems with night time access to the beauty of our universe. Hubris can cause tunnel vision as to what one hopes to achieve.

    It will be hardly noticeable even at current technology. ESO released a study a week ago, and most optical astronomy will see a 0.5 % loss of observation time, which is double the current loss to satellites https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200305132049.htm ]. The reason is that they go so low and most will be Earth shaded at any given time. "The effect is more pronounced for long exposures (of about 1000 s), up to 3% of which could be ruined during twilight, the time between dawn and sunrise and between sunset and dusk. Shorter exposures would be less impacted, with fewer than 0.5% of observations of this type affected. " "Overall, these new satellite constellations would about double the number of satellites visible in the night sky to the naked eye above 30 degrees ."

    That estimate do not seem to include the initial tumbling and orbit raising of, say, Starlink satellites. It will also cost in developing software technology to dodge and filter out the satellite tracks, but the technology was moderately complex I think. What will be hit is certain long exposure observatories. "For example, up to 30% to 50% of exposures with the US National Science Foundation's Vera C. Rubin Observatory (not an ESO facility) would be "severely affected," depending on the time of year, the time of night, and the simplifying assumptions of the study." We still don't know about radio astronomy, the satellites will leak some into frequency bands nearby their allowed slots.

    I have to ask, why is "hubris" mentioned whenever scientists or technologists tackle hard problems? Statistics AFAIK say that no matter the level of difficulty, some 90 % of projects will never succeed. (Ask your teenager when he or she last cleaned their rooms.) But conversely 10 % of projects will succeed, no matter how complex. Oh, the complex will be late and/or costly, building is mostly one off projects and large building projects average 60 % over projected budget. But that is generic, not hubris. Similarly, society do succeed in complex projects, that is generic and not hubris. Wouldn't it be hubris to claim that complex projects cannot possibly succeed?
    Reply