Elon Musk, founder of the world-famous aerospace manufacturing company SpaceX, has recently announced he‘s making some big changes to the rocket ship called Starship, expected to be deployed as part of his grand plan to settle people on Mars.
According to Musk, Starship is scheduled to be a massive – 180-foot-tall – fully reusable space craft equipped with the capacity of refuelling in low-Earth orbit and simultaneously propelling 100 passengers along with 100 tonnes of cargo towards the red planet.
One of the changes, which Musk described as “radical” and “delightfully counterintuitive”, includes ditching carbon-fibre composites for as-yet-undisclosed stainless-steel alloys.
What’s got engineers around the world scratching their heads, though, is the proposed manner in which the juggernaut craft will cool itself off to prevent destruction in the atmosphere, namely – a trail of rocket fuel, which, Musk claims, will put up a barrier between the steel surface and the super-hot plasma generated as a result of friction with atmospheric gases.
Among those enthusiastic, yet cautious, about the new design is Walt Engelund, an aerospace engineer and Director of the Space Technology and Exploration Directorate at NASA Langley, who claims that successfully navigating a building-size ship populated with humans will be around 100 times more difficult than the agency’s biggest challenge to date.
“Large-scale entry, descent, and landing is something that NASA has been challenged by for decades. We’ve spent a lot of time and given a lot of thought to how we might do it at Mars,” Engelund said. “We’ve landed the metric-ton Curiosity rover – that’s the biggest thing we’ve ever put down on the surface of Mars”.
In order to make good on his promise to establish a colony on Mars by 2050, make the trip cost around the same as a house, and even offer free trips back, Musk said he chose steel because, among other reasons, it is about 67 times cheaper than carbon and, given his new design, might also be lighter than either advanced aluminium or carbon fibre.
A key challenge pointed out by some experts will be how to ensure the pores set to leak fuel for cooling purposes don’t get clogged.
Musk claims that more information on the design will be released in March/April following tests conducted with a prototype.