Elon Musk is still thinking big with SpaceX's Starship Mars-colonizing rocket. Really big.

Artist's illustration of SpaceX Starships on Mars.
Artist's illustration of SpaceX Starships on Mars. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Surprise, surprise: Elon Musk is thinking big.

SpaceX's billionaire founder and CEO outlined some ambitious goals for the company's Starship 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, and a giant rocket named Super Heavy. 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.

Related: SpaceX's Starship and Super Heavy Rocket in Pictures

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And "frequent reuse" is a bit of an understatement, it would seem. In one of Thursday's tweets, 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. (And Musk wants each Starship to keep flying for a while. In yet another tweet, he said SpaceX is aiming for an operational life of 20 to 30 years for each vehicle.)

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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, "So a million people [on Mars] by 2050?" The billionaire responded simply: "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 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. 

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

  • Admiral Lagrange
    18 years trying and he's still focused on making his dream come true. I remember him stating he would launch the Falcon 1 from a drilling rig in international waters if the gov didn't let him fly. The flight path would have taken the Falcon 1 over Mexico and the Gov said "Oh No, We can't have that !". So after some problems with Vandenberg they gave him a spot on Kwajalein Atol not believing he'd succeed. Were they surprised. LOL

    All the cards looked like they were stacked against Elon and probably were. I think it was the article here on Space.com by Leonard David that got the people rallying for Elon and SpaceX,
  • Pico
    He’s not crazy... he’s already proven the reusable rocket model for satellite launch biz... it’s the customers that launch satellites that are going to pay for the 1000 rocket fleet... he just needs to build an extra spaceship for each satellite launch booster... given the satellite launch industry doesn’t care about throwing away rockets that are used only once ... he could easier save 10 rockets a year for free... after 10 years you have 100 rockets going to mars...
  • Admiral Lagrange
    Pico said:
    He’s not crazy... he’s already proven the reusable rocket model for satellite launch biz... it’s the customers that launch satellites that are going to pay for the 1000 rocket fleet... he just needs to build an extra spaceship for each satellite launch booster... given the satellite launch industry doesn’t care about throwing away rockets that are used only once ... he could easier save 10 rockets a year for free... after 10 years you have 100 rockets going to mars...

    SpaceX will pack as many Sats as possible into each Starship. His first priority is generating revenue. When he's got a reliable Starship, one will be used for the private Moon return flight. Then he has a couple moon deliveries to make. Those ships will most likely not come back. The first 3 to Mars won't be coming back either.

    Elon has stated many times that the revenue from StarLink will pay for the Mars fleet.

    To make this post shorter than it could be; You must learn to separate the hype from reality. There won't be a 1,000 fleet of ships.
  • Speed
    Elon has nailed it with his reusable rockets, and now Starship.
    And I would love to see humans living on Mars.
    But in my opinion, the biggest thing they are going to need is a large potable water source. Cutting ice blocks and melting them down will take too much time and effort to sustain more than an outpost. For colonization, they are going to have to find water reservoirs like we have on earth. And no one is talking about drilling wells...yet.
    It is estimated that there is between 10 to 20 times as much subsurface water on the earth as there is surface water. We know Mars used to have oceans, it is possible that it has underground reservoirs like the earth. But someone has to figure out how to find it, and then how to drill for it.
  • rarchimedes
    Finding water appears to not be a problem on Mars. We need a small nuclear reactor to make chemical processing fast and simple, using heat derived from the reactor or electricity from a generator attached to the reactor to produce heat. Life on Mars and especially the Moon will not be possible without a nuclear reactor to support every aspect of any colony that is started. Even a basic habitat will require a reactor for heat and light during the two weeks in the shade. There are a few locations that have continuous sunlight, but we are going to want to go beyond those. On Mars, a reactor can both support melting initially and drilling beyond that. We need to be careful, though, because we might drill into more than water if Mars went through a "swamp" phase.

    Secondly, Starships and Super Heavies that can withstand years of service are going to require one of two techniques. One, reinforcing bands for the welds, which will be too heavy, or two, using friction-stir welding for joining all the cylinders and the tank headers and nose cones. Two will require a little cleaner environment than the current method, but the results will be segments joined as if they were single pieces of metal, with no impurities from the welds. That is the method currently used on F9 tanks and headers and it is available for stainless steel, All that is required is jigs to support and align the equipment and a fairly clean environment, which can be provided by pressurized gases as are already used for normal welding. If there are tensions left in the metal, the whole thing can be annealed in the equivalent of a paint oven.

    The method laid out in "two" above is reasonably simple and uses available technology whose cost can be recovered over the many rockets he plans to build. The current welding techniques are expensive and weak and need to be superseded.

    If he needs welders, all he has to do is go up the coast to Del Mar Technical Vocational school in Corpus Christi. It produces top notch welders that can pass X-ray on any job in the world. If Elon will work with them, they can train welders and mechanics to any standard he will like. They also produce diesel mechanics who are used to working in a clean room because of the fine tolerances in diesel injectors.

    And anyone who goes to Del Mar is used to working in the heat and humidity of the Gulf Coast. I know these things because I am the son of the man who started the school and the master welding instructor was my godfather. They are both gone now, but they left behind a fine school.