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Elon Musk’s Starlink secures supply deal from Google’s cloud unit

It appears that Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service has secured a formidable ally. In an announcement on Thursday, Google announced that its cloud unit had won a deal to supply computing and networking resources to SpaceX. With this deal in place, Google would be able to help deliver internet services through Starlink’s satellite network. 

As per a report from CNBC, the deal involves SpaceX installing ground stations at Google data centers, which, in turn, connect to Starlink’s constellation. Such a system is expected to help Google in its efforts to compete against competitors such as Amazon and Microsoft in the rapidly expanding cloud computing segment. 

Expectations are high for Google’s cloud business, which has seen impressive growth in recent years. While only delivering 7% of Alphabet’s total revenue in the first quarter, for example, Google’s cloud unit exhibited a 46% growth year-over-year. This exceeded the company’s advertising business, which grew 32% YoY. 

Bikash Koley, Google’s head of global networking, is optimistic about the Starlink deal. “This is one of a kind. I don’t believe something like this has been done before. The real potential of this technology became very obvious. The power of combining cloud with universal secure connectivity, it’s a very powerful combination,” Koley noted. 

Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google’s cloud group, was equally optimistic. “They chose us because of the quality of our network and the distribution and reach of our network,” he said, adding that Starlink’s service could be invaluable for consumers that are in locations with very limited internet access, or businesses and organizations running projects in remote areas. 

By having Starlink draw on Google’s cloud network, Kurian expects organizations to deploy applications within Google’s cloud to take advantage of the system’s high speeds. 

Interestingly enough, Google is not the only cloud provider working with Elon Musk’s private space firm. Back in October, Microsoft stated that it was working with SpaceX to bring Starlink’s satellite internet system to modular Azure cloud data centers, which could then be deployed anywhere. 

SpaceX currently stands as one of the world’s most valuable private companies, raising money at a $74 billion valuation back in February. Starlink is also growing at an immense pace, with the private space firm launching over 1,500 satellites to date. Furthermore, SpaceX revealed last week that over 500,000 people had pre-ordered the satellite internet solution.   

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SpaceX nails first Starship landing weeks after NASA Moon lander contract

In perhaps the best possible news that could have followed NASA’s historic SpaceX Moon lander contract, the company has successfully landed a Starship prototype in one piece – without it exploding – for the first time ever.

In spite of unusually unreliable live views from the rocket’s onboard cameras, possible due to SpaceX using Starlink as a Starship antenna for the first time, Starship serial number 15 (SN15) touched down at the very edge of the landing pad a bit less than seven minutes after lifting off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch facilities.

Like all four of its predecessors, Starship SN15 ignited all three of its Raptor engines and gradually ascended to an altitude of ~10 km (6.2 mi), gradually shutting down one engine every 90 or so seconds along the way. At apogee, after briefly hovering under the power of one engine, the last Raptor cut off and Starship angled over onto its belly and simply fell back to Earth.

Using four large steel ‘flaps,’ the rocket controlled its descent like a skydiver down to approximately 500m (~2000 ft) above the ground and ignited two or three of its Raptors to aggressively flip into a tail-down orientation. SN15 then slowed all the way down under the thrust of two of those engines for an exceptionally soft – albeit inaccurate – landing on a concrete pad.

Much like SN10, which caught on fire shortly before touchdown, landed intact, and then exploded after that fire continued to burn, Starship SN15 appeared to catch fire shortly after landing and a significant fire burned for at least five minutes before disappearing. As a result, be it intentional on behalf of SpaceX or simple luck, SN15 did not explode after touchdown. The Starship also landed far more gently than Starship SN10, which effectively pancaked its tiny legs and embedded its skirt directly into concrete.

Ultimately, Starship SN15’s fully successful launch and landing is an immense achievement after four failed – but data-rich – attempts and confirms that SpaceX is on the right track. Perhaps even more importantly, the success is quite possibly the vindication for NASA after the space agency made the shocking decision to return humanity to the Moon with SpaceX’s Starship.

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Starlink’s ease of use and speed impresses cybersecurity analyst

Nicholas Underwood, a 25-year-old cybersecurity analyst, is well-versed in tech, but before getting his Starlink kit, he was facing a rather tricky situation. Since moving to his new home in Stevens Point, WI, seven months ago, Underwood has had to deal with extremely slow internet speeds. So slow, in fact, that on good days, his local ISP could only provide him with speeds of about 3 Mbps. 

This situation, while incredibly unfortunate, is not only being experienced by a small group of people in the United States. For those living in rural areas, users typically have to make do with downright painful internet speeds. This was one of the reasons why Underwood promptly signed up for Starlink as soon as he was able, despite the system’s rather steep upfront fee of $499. 

Underwood’s Starlink kit was able to record speeds of around 80 Mbps on the first day. And since then, the service has only gotten better. The Starlink kit was even able to achieve speeds of 110 Mbps despite Dishy McFlatface being in two feet of snow. When asked by Inverse about his thoughts on Elon Musk’s satellite-based internet service, the cybersecurity expert noted that he is optimistic about Starlink’s potential. 

Part of this was because of the system’s ease of use. This was something that Elon Musk has highlighted in the past, with the SpaceX CEO noting that Starlink is designed to be as simple as possible. This, according to Underwood, would make it easy for those unfamiliar with tech to set up their Starlink kits easily. 

“I would definitely say it’s non-tech-person ready. The setup, it can’t get easier. You literally can’t get any satellite internet connection easier to set up,” Underwood said. 

Starlink is only in its initial stages, but the company is making some serious headway into the system’s expansion. As per SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, the production costs of Starlink’s terminals have already seen a dramatic decline. She also remarked that the satellite-based internet service should be capable of full global connectivity just a handful of months from now. Job listings from SpaceX have also suggested that the private space firm is looking to establish a Starlink production facility in Texas. 

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SpaceX’s Starlink terminal production costs have dropped over 50%, reveals president

During the recently-held Satellite 2021 “LEO Digital Forum” virtual panel, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell revealed that the Starlink terminal’s production costs have dropped by over 50% from its initial manufacturing prices.

SpaceX has launched over 1,200 Starlink satellites to orbit so far, and its beta service has been expanded to countries such as the United States, Canada, the UK, Germany, and New Zealand. Inasmuch as the satellite-based internet system has been well-received, however, the service’s cost remains quite premium, with customers buying the Starlink terminal for a $499 upfront fee and a $99 monthly fee. 

Shotwell, for her part, noted in the recently-held forum that SpaceX had actually “made great progress on reducing the cost” of the Starlink user terminal. Initially, the Starlink user terminal cost SpaceX about $3,000 each, but today, Shotwell noted that the user terminals only cost less than $1,500 each. SpaceX had “just rolled out a new version that saved about $200 off the cost,” Shotwell added

SpaceX’s challenges with Starlink’s production costs have been highlighted by Elon Musk in the past, with the CEO noting that the satellite internet system “needs to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow to make Starlink financially viable.” Accomplishing financial viability would require SpaceX to optimize Starlink’s production costs, an endeavor that would likely be quite similar to Tesla’s pursuit of cost efficiencies in the Model 3’s production. 

Apart from discussing the Starlink terminal’s production costs, Shotwell also provided some insights on SpaceX’s plans for the satellite-based internet system’s service plans. According to the executive, SpaceX would likely not do tiered pricing, as the priority is to keep Starlink’s services as simple as possible. 

“I don’t think we’re going to do tiered pricing to consumers. We’re going to try to keep it as simple as possible and transparent as possible, so right now, there are no plans to tier for consumers,” Shotwell said. 

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SpaceX is building launch pad tanks out of Starship parts and that’s a big deal

SpaceX has begun installing the first of numerous propellant storage tanks at its first orbital South Texas launch facilities – a mostly ordinary and expected step made extraordinary by the fact that those tanks will be built out of Starship parts.

Labeled “GSE” for Ground Support Equipment, the first signs of those self-built storage tanks began appearing at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory less than two months ago in mid-February. A matter of weeks later, the first of those SpaceX-brand cryogenic storage tanks is off to the launch site for installation (and insulation) while at least two more tanks are well on their way to completion.

While a few ground starge tanks may look like a distraction in the scope of a program tasked with building the world’s largest (and fully reusable) rocket, the existence of those tanks is far more significant than it might initially appear.

Simply put, rocket propellant storage – even for extremely cold cryogenic liquids like those that SpaceX uses – is a thoroughly solved problem. Numerous commercial vendors exist and industrial demand for practically identical tanks is far higher, further lowering commercial tank costs even for those with niche use-cases thanks to economies of scale. For SpaceX’s purposes, major discounts could like be secured given that the company would need to purchase around three to four-dozen commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) 100,000 gallon tanks to supply a launch pad with enough commodities for two back-to-back launches of Starship and Super Heavy.

That initial launch capability – which SpaceX appears to be working towards – would likely allow the company to start orbital refueling test flights (and Starlink launches, perhaps) immediately after completion. However, that initial capability wouldn’t suffice for ambitious missions to Mars, the Moon, or higher Earth orbits; where one Starship would need to be rapidly refueled with 3-10+ tanker launches. A launch facility capable of supporting 5-10 back-to-back launches (optimally just a few hours apart) would require many times more propellant storage.

GSE-1 – a propellant storage tank – rolled to SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch pad for assembly on April 5th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
For all intents and purposes, GSE-1 is a Starship without a nose, flaps, or Raptors. Starship SN15’s tank section is pictured here on March 31st. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

The point is that for the initial target of two (or so) launches between commodity resupply, SpaceX could likely acquire the few dozen new storage tanks it would need for a few million dollars apiece for a total cost likely between $50M and $100M. Instead, SpaceX has decided to design and build its own propellant storage tanks. Even more significantly, the GSE tanks SpaceX has already begun building appear to be virtually identical to Starships.

In other words, SpaceX is effectively taking identical rocket parts, slightly tweaking a handful of those parts, and turning what could have been a rocket into a propellant storage tank. This is significant because relative to all other rockets in history, even including SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 and Heavy, building storage tanks with unchanged rocket parts on a rocket assembly line would be roughly akin to hiring Vincent van Gogh to paint lane lines.

Ever since Elon Musk made the radical decision to switch from composite structures to stainless steel, Starship has always aimed to be radically different than any large rocket before it. Crucially, by using commodity steel, the CEO imagined SpaceX would be able to build Starships fairly easily and for pennies on the dollar next to even SpaceX’s exceptionally affordable Falcon 9. In the last 18 months, it’s become apparent that SpaceX has built a factory capable of churning out one or two massive steel rockets per month and is willing to consign at least four or five of those Starship prototypes to all-but-guaranteed failures for the sake of data-gathering and iterative improvement.

SpaceX bought run-of-the-mill off-the-shelf storage tanks to build its suborbital Starship launch complex. That won’t be the case for its orbital-class big brother. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Instead, without any significant changes, SpaceX’s South Texas Starship factory has begun churning out custom launch pad storage tanks. (SpaceX)

Technically, the most logical conclusion would be that Musk was right and that SpaceX has quickly developed the ability to build steel rockets larger than any other launch vehicle on Earth for perhaps just $5M or less apiece. However, SpaceX is also raising on the order of $1-2B in venture capital annually, so they could technically afford to shoulder the cost of extremely expensive Starship prototypes if the company was confident that there was a path to cut those costs and reach the targets needed for the rocket to make economical sense.

Now, the existence of self-built propellant storage tanks virtually identical to flightworthy Starship airframes all but guarantees that SpaceX is already building Starships for a few million dollars each – and possibly much less. More than a year ago, Musk said that SpaceX was already building the Raptor engines that will power Starship and Super Heavy for less than $1M apiece and was working to mass-produce a simpler variant for less than $250,000. Beyond engines and primary structures, Starship hardware is fairly simple and ranges from Tesla-derived motors, basic flaps, and landing legs to off-the-shelf pressure vessels (COPVs) and wiring. SpaceX has managed that extraordinary cost-efficiency despite the fact that Boca Chica is still nowhere close to the level of volume production Musk is aiming for, meaning that there are still far more efficiencies waiting to be realized.

GSE-2 – a second storage tank – is just two stacks and a week or two of work away from following GSE-1 to the launch pad. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
SpaceX’s custom pad storage tanks will be installed on reinforced concrete stands and (most likely) somehow insulated. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

For now, with virtually no retooling and the exact same assembly line, SpaceX’s South Texas rocket factory is busy churning out massive launch pad tanks – one of which is already preparing for installation while another two speed towards completion. All told, SpaceX appears to be preparing foundations for seven 9m-wide (30ft), 27.5m-tall (90ft) Starship-derived tanks that should be capable of storing ~2200 tons (4.9 million pounds) of subcooled liquid methane in three tanks and ~7300 tons (16.1 million pounds) of liquid oxygen in the other four tanks – enough for two orbital Starship launches.

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Elon Musk’s Starlink could make Earth visible to alien civilizations, states paper

While humanity has advanced significantly in the short time it has existed on Earth, the planet is, for all intents and purposes, still invisible, at least to potential advanced civilizations that are also looking for life in the cosmos. If an intelligent civilization were to look in Earth’s direction, they would likely see very little evidence that humans exist or have existed. According to a new paper, however, this could change with the buildout of Elon Musk’s Starlink, which could very well become Earth’s first “megastructure.”

The paper–titled “From the SpaceX Starlink megaconstellation to the search for Type-I civilizations” and written by Zaza Osmanov, a professor in astrophysics at the Free University of Tbilisi, Georgia–notes that Starlink’s massive size could give Earth its first “techno-signature” that’s actually visible from deep space. 

An unofficial analysis of SpaceX’s first ~1600 Starlink satellites. (Credit: Mark Handley)

A techno-signature is evidence for the use of technology or industrial activity in other parts of the Universe, which could be a good way to confirm the presence of an advanced civilization. 

As noted by Osmanov, instruments like the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and China’s FAST radio telescope already have enough technology to locate megastructures like Starlink in deep space. The professor notes that since Earth’s advanced interferometers are able to detect this activity from other planets today, any other civilization with comparable or better tech would likely be able to do the same, and potentially find Earth in the process. 

Osmanov estimates that ultimately, Starlink could be visible to instruments like the VLT on planets up to 260 light-years away, while instruments comparable to the FAST telescope would likely be able to detect the megaconstellation as far out as 520 light-years away. This would require Starlink to be fully ramped, of course, which would likely take a considerable amount of time. 

The idea of humans creating a megastructure invokes ideas such as the Kardashev Scale, a measure of how technologically advanced a civilization is based on how much energy it’s able to harness. According to the Kardashev Scale, a Type-1 Civilization could harness all the energy that falls on a planet from its parent star, a Type-2 civilization can harness all the energy produced by its parent star (through systems like a Dyson sphere), and a Type-3 civilization can harness the total energy in a galaxy. Osmanov notes that humans, at least for now, could be considered as a Type-0.7 civilization. 

Though considering Elon Musk’s ventures such as Tesla and SpaceX, as well as Starlink’s potential future as a megastructure that gives Earth its first techno-signature, perhaps humans are on a path to becoming a Type-1 civilization after all. 

Osmanov’s paper, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, could be accessed below. 

Starlink Type 1 Civilization by Simon Alvarez on Scribd

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Elon Musk’s Starlink Beta meets opposition from India’s industry body

It appears that Starlink is facing a challenge in India, a country expected to receive coverage from the satellite internet system sometime next year. 

The opposition against Starlink was initiated by the Broadband India Forum, which has written a request to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The forum asked the bodies to block SpaceX from pre-selling the beta version of the satellite internet service in the country. 

As noted in a report from The Economic Times, TV Ramachandran, the industry body president, argued that SpaceX does not have the necessary license or authorizations from the government to offer its beta services in India. 

The Broadband India Forum represents companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Hughes, and Microsoft. In its request, the forum asked the bodies to “urgently intervene to protect fair competition and adherence to existing policy and regulatory norms.” It also noted that SpaceX seemed to be “non-compliant to existing guidelines” in India.  

Explaining further, the forum added that Starlink does not have its own ground stations in the country, nor does it have the satellite frequency authorization from the ISRO and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). According to the forum, these are needed for a company to be allowed to offer beta services in India. 

SpaceX, for its part, has not issued a statement about the matter. In a statement to the Times, a senior TRAI official has stated that the issue brought up by the Broadband India Forum “would be examined.”

SpaceX is currently offering pre-orders for the beta version of Starlink in India for a fully refundable deposit of $99 (about Rs 7,000). The satellite internet service is poised to compete with other satellite communication services such as the Bharti Group and the UK government-owned OneWeb, which is also expected to launch its services sometime in 2022. Competition may also be coming in the form of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is yet to provide internet services, even in beta form. 

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Elon Musk announces $30M donation to Cameron County, TX schools, City of Brownsville

Elon Musk has announced he will donate $30 million to Cameron County Schools and the City of Brownsville, Texas. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO announced that additional details would come next week.

“Am donating $20M to Cameron County schools & $10M to City of Brownsville for downtown revitalization,” Musk Tweeted Tuesday morning. “Details to follow next week.”

The area is home to SpaceX’s South Texas launch site, often referred to as “Starbase” or the “Boca Chica Launch Site.” The private facility is home to SpaceX’s rocket production facility and spaceport and is located in Texas’s southernmost region near the U.S.-Mexico border. It has been the home of eight SpaceX launches, with the first coming in April 2019 and the most recent on March 3rd, 2021.

Additionally, Musk plans to alleviate some energy concerns in the area by partnering with Magic Valley Utility, which will supply the area with clean, wind power. Musk also said that Tesla and SpaceX are attempting to increase solar power by ten-fold. “We’re also aiming to increase solar power from 1MW to 10MW, paired with Tesla Megapacks, for continuous power,” he said.

In early March, Musk indicated that SpaceX would be “creating the city of Starbase, Texas” by incorporating the village of Boca Chica to the Starship production complex. The two areas together would be called, Starbase, Texas, and Cameron Country Judge Eddie Trevino, Jr., said he has been in contact with SpaceX. Elon Musk’s rocket-building entity contacted Judge Trevino Jr. just days before Musk’s tweet, he said.

“If SpaceX and Elon Musk would like to pursue down this path, they must abide by all state incorporation statutes. Cameron County will process any appropriate petitions in conformity with applicable law,” Trevino said in a statement.

Musk also said that he hopes that his Boring Company can install a loop from Brownsville International Airport to South Padre Island and Starbase, based on a suggestion from a Twitter follower.

Musk has donated millions of dollars to notable causes over the past several years. Most recently, donations to the Khan Academy, the Barstool Fund for Small Businesses, and to Boston researchers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted Musk’s extensive list of charitable causes. He has also pledged a $100M reward to carbon capture development, a project that he announced earlier this year.

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Starlink FCC application reveal plans for satellite internet in moving vehicles

The idea of Teslas being connected to the internet through Starlink may soon before a reality, with SpaceX recently filing an application to the FCC to expand the satellite service to “moving vehicles, vessels, and aircraft.” The application comes not long after Musk gave the nod on Twitter for a Starlink “Mini,” which could provide internet connectivity on the go.

In its FCC application, SpaceX aimed to acquire a blanket license authorizing the operation of end-user earth stations for deployment dubbed as Vehicle-Mounted Earth Stations (“VMESs”), Earth Stations on Vessels (“ESVs”), and Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft (“ESAAs”). Collectively called Earth Stations in Motion (“ESIMs”), these stations would have the capability to bring internet connectivity to moving vehicles like cars, ships, or even aircraft.

“SpaceX Services seeks authority to deploy and operate these earth stations (1) as VMES throughout the United States and its territories, (2) as ESVs in the territorial waters of the United States and throughout international waters worldwide, and (3) as ESAAs on U.S.-registered aircraft operating worldwide and non-U.S.-registered aircraft operating in U.S. airspace,” SpaceX noted.

Elaborating further, SpaceX noted that Starlink ESIMs could be invaluable considering that internet users today are increasingly becoming unwilling to forego web connectivity while traveling. SpaceX stated that ultimately, the idea of Starlink being used for moving vehicles is a logical extension of the satellite internet system’s core services.

“No longer are users willing to forego connectivity while on the move, whether driving a truck across the country, moving a freighter from Europe to a U.S. port or while on a domestic or international flight. To help meet this demand, SpaceX has deployed an innovative, cost-effective, and spectrum-efficient satellite system capable of delivering robust broadband service to customers around the world, particularly in unserved and underserved areas.

“SpaceX has already secured U.S. authority for the space station components of its NGSO system. This application takes the next step by seeking authority for ESIMs that will enable the extension of that network from homes and offices to vehicles, vessels, and aircraft. Operation under the requested blanket license will promote competition in the market for in-motion broadband services, to the benefit of drivers, ship operators, and air travelers in the United States and abroad.”

Starlink’s ESIMs would benefit numerous entities, one of which would be Tesla, Elon Musk’s electric vehicle and energy company. Tesla’s electric cars are connected to the internet for features like video streaming and over-the-air updates, with the company even offering a “Premium Connectivity” service as an option today. With Starlink’s capability to connect to the internet in a moving vehicle, Tesla would no longer have to rely on existing mobile internet providers for its cars.

Starlink’s application to provide internet access to moving vehicles could be accessed below.

Starlink-ESIMs by Simon Alvarez on Scribd

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SpaceX completes $850 million equity funding round, raising valuation to ~$74B

SpaceX has completed another massive equity funding round of $850 million last week, effectively bringing the company’s valuation to about $74 billion. The update was related by a number of individuals reportedly familiar with the financing. 

Elon Musk’s private space enterprise raised new funds at a rather interesting price of $419.99 per share, just 1 cent away from $420, an amount that has become infamous in Tesla lore following the CEO’s infamous “funding secured” fiasco in 2018. With the recent funding round, SpaceX’s valuation has effectively jumped about 60% from its previous round in August, when the company raised almost $2 billion. The August funding round resulted in SpaceX having an estimated valuation of $46 billion. 

SpaceX, for its part, has not issued a comment about its latest funding round as of writing. 

Interestingly enough, insiders and existing investors were reportedly able to sell $750 million in a secondary transaction, as per a report from CNBC. SpaceX also reportedly raised only a portion of the funding available in the marketplace, with one of the insiders informing the news outlet that the private space firm received insane demand of about $6 billion in offers over three days. 

The recent funding round has definitively strengthened SpaceX’s war chest, and it also allows the company to pursue two of its most capital-intensive projects to date. One of these is the further buildout of Starlink, a satellite constellation aimed at providing high-speed, stable internet access to remote areas. SpaceX has hinted in the past that Starlink will cost about $10 billion to build, though the company also noted that it expects the constellation to bring in as much as $30 billion per year. That’s over ten times the annual revenue of SpaceX’s rocket business. 

So far, Starlink has launched over 1,000 satellites for the constellation, and recent filings to the Federal Communications Commission last week have revealed that the service’s public beta now has over 10,000 users in the United States and abroad. Initial reception to Starlink has been widely positive so far, with users in remote areas noting that the satellite internet service is far quicker and more stable than their previous internet providers. 

SpaceX is also busy with the Starship program; a challenging endeavor aimed that developing a reusable spacecraft that could take humans to other planets. Starship’s development has been very rapid, though SpaceX is yet to land one of the spacecraft’s prototypes successfully. If successful, Starship could pave the way for mainstream space travel, and perhaps even the colonization of Mars. 

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