Surprise, surprise: Elon Musk is thinking big.
SpaceX's billionaire founder and CEO outlined some ambitious goals for the company's Starship (opens in new tab) Mars-colonization system during a flurry of Twitter posts on Thursday (Jan. 16).
The Starship architecture consists of a big spaceship called Starship, which Musk has said will be capable of carrying up to 100 people (opens in new tab), and a giant rocket named Super Heavy (opens in new tab). Both of these vehicles will be reusable; indeed, rapid and frequent reuse is key to Musk's overall vision, which involves cutting the cost of spaceflight enough to make Mars colonization and other bold exploration feats economically feasible.
Starship design goal is 3 flights/day avg rate, so ~1000 flights/year at >100 tons/flight, so every 10 ships yield 1 megaton per year to orbitJanuary 17, 2020
And "frequent reuse" is a bit of an understatement, it would seem. In one of Thursday's tweets (opens in new tab), for example, Musk wrote that the eventual goal is to launch each Starship vehicle three times per day on average. Each Starship will be able to carry about 100 tons of payload to orbit, so, at that flight rate, every vehicle would loft about 100,000 tons annually, he explained.
And there won't be just one Starship — far from it, if everything goes according to Musk's plan.
"Building 100 Starships/year gets to 1000 in 10 years or 100 megatons/year or maybe around 100k people per Earth-Mars orbital sync," Musk wrote in another Thursday tweet.
"Orbital sync" refers to an alignment of the two planets that's favorable for interplanetary travel, which comes along just once every 26 months. So, Musk envisions huge fleets of Starships departing during these windows.
"Loading the Mars fleet into Earth orbit, then 1000 ships depart over ~30 days every 26 months. Battlestar Galactica …" he wrote in another tweet (opens in new tab). (And Musk wants each Starship to keep flying for a while. In yet another tweet (opens in new tab), he said SpaceX is aiming for an operational life of 20 to 30 years for each vehicle.)
Starship orbital vehicle SN1, liquid oxygen header tank & nosecone pic.twitter.com/IaSEdIyZgPJanuary 16, 2020
Musk wants all of this activity to lead to the establishment of a sustainable settlement on the Red Planet. This goal — making humanity a multiplanet species — is close to the entrepreneur's heart. He has repeatedly stressed that it's why he founded SpaceX back in 2002, and why he has been amassing wealth for the past few decades.
Back in mid-2017, Musk said that the Starship architecture (which was then called the Interplanetary Transport System) could potentially allow a million-person city to rise on Mars within 50 to 100 years. He's still working toward such an ambitious timeline — an even more ambitious one, in fact. On Thursday, one of Musk's Twitter followers asked (opens in new tab), "So a million people [on Mars] by 2050?" The billionaire responded simply (opens in new tab): "Yes."
Super Heavy won't make the trip to Mars, by the way; the huge rocket is needed just to get the Starship vehicle off Earth. The passenger spacecraft will be able to launch itself off the moon and Mars, both of which are much smaller than our planet and are therefore much easier to escape.
SpaceX is currently building its first Starship orbital vehicle, called the SN1, at the company's South Texas facilities. Also on Thursday, Musk tweeted a photo (opens in new tab) of technicians working on the SN1's nose cone and liquid-oxygen header tank.
Starship could get up and running soon. SpaceX representatives have said the first operational missions of the vehicle, which will likely loft communications satellites, could come as early as 2021. And there's already one crewed mission on Starship's manifest — a round-the-moon voyage booked by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, which is targeted for 2023.
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Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.(opens in new tab)