Four years after Elon Musk revealed “aspirational” plans to launch Starships to Mars in 2022, the SpaceX CEO now believes that 2024 is a more accurate target.
For SpaceX, that two-year ‘delay’ is more impressive than anything given that the company practically restarted Starship development from scratch a year after Musk set the 2022 target. In late 2018, after more than two years of work developing a Starship (then BFR) built out of carbon fiber composites, the CEO revealed that the company was going to completely redesign the rocket to use steel for all major structures.
Two and a half years after that decision, SpaceX has built a vast Starship factory capable of building at least one ship per month, cumulatively fired dozens of full-scale Raptor engines for more than 30,000+ seconds, flown eight full-scale prototypes, and recovered the first full-size Starship in one piece after a high-altitude launch and bellyflop-style descent and landing.
It doesn’t come as a huge surprise that Starship probably wont be attempting any Mars launches in 2022. Had SpaceX not had to return to the drawing board in 2018, Musk may well have been able to achieve that 2022 goal, but wholly redesigning Starship with steel almost certainly delayed development by at least a year. For interplanetary launches, the most efficient trajectories – those that allow a rocket to maximize payload capacity – are only open for several weeks every ~25 months. That means that a rocket that’s one year behind a Mars launch window will still have to wait more than two years for the next launch opportunity.
In Starship’s case, even if SpaceX were ready for its first Mars cargo missions in 2023, it would need to wait until September or October 2024. That’s far from out of the question but three full years will arguably give SpaceX a good amount of time to both ensure that Starship is technically ready and reliable enough to land on Mars while also determining – and likely designing and building – the cargo those first Starships will carry.
SpaceX could also launch the first one or several Mars-bound Starships with an absolute minimum payload under the assumption that success will require several failures, in which case the company would have until 2026 to develop a system capable of finding and gathering Martian ice, processing it into cryogenic liquid oxygen and methane, and storing that propellant for months or even years. Without that complex system of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), Starship will never be able to leave Mars, turning initial crewed missions into one-way trips.
In the meantime, while SpaceX has successfully proven that Starship’s exotic skydiver-style landing is viable on planets with atmospheres, orbital Starship flight tests will likely pose just as many challenges. Starship will have the largest heat shield of any spacecraft ever built, while that heat shield will also be the first non-ablative shield ever developed by SpaceX. Even if Starship aces reentries from low Earth orbit (LEO), reentries from geostationary, lunar, or Mars transfer orbits are all multiple times more stressful, requiring still more testing to ensure that its ceramic heat shield and steel hull can withstand interplanetary velocity reentries.
SpaceX will also have to develop unprecedented thermal management solutions to keep hundreds of tons of cryogenic liquid propellant at the right temperatures for weeks, months, or even years in orbit, deep space, and on the surfaces of other moons and planets. This is all to say that SpaceX has its work cut out for it as it approaches the dawn of orbital Starship flight tests and has to tackle a number of daunting technical challenges it might end up being the first to solve. But, as SpaceX always has, it will devour each problem piece by piece until Starship is exactly as capable and revolutionary as the company and its CEO have long promised – if a bit behind schedule.
SpaceX’s Crew-1 NASA astronauts and the rest of the International Space Station crew are celebrating the space agency’s latest historic Mars landing in Earth orbit.
The culmination of more than half a decade of work and a several hundred million million mile journey through deep space, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have managed to make lightning strike twice, successfully landing a second car-sized rover on the surface of Mars. Carrying a bevy of cutting-edge science instruments – many of which are on the Red Planet for the first time – and even a small helicopter-like drone, the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is now ready for a careful once-over before kicking off a what should be a years-long science campaign.
If all goes as planned, part of that campaign will involve collecting an extensive series of Martian soil samples that could eventually be recovered and launched back to Earth in the late 2020s or 2030s. In the meantime, the Perseverance rover – nicknamed ‘Percy’ – will essentially operate as a supercharged, upgraded version of Curiosity, an almost identical car-sized rover that debuted NASA and JPL’s powered descent and landing capabilities in 2012.
Curiosity continues to roam Mars with no signs of slowing down and is making slow but steady progress on a marathon climb up the outskirts of Mount Sharp. While roughly the same size as Percy, Curiosity’s younger sibling carries an almost entirely revamped set of scientific instruments and is substantially heavier, meaning that the Mars 2020 mission represents the first time history that a spacecraft weighing more than one metric ton (1025kg/2260lb) has successfully landed on another planet.
Unlike SpaceX, which has long prioritized trial and error and extensive incremental testing on the path to developing new technologies and capabilities, NASA and JPL – for a variety of complex reasons – are under an incredible amount of pressure to succeed on the first try. That’s particularly apparent with missions like Curiosity and Perseverance, where the slightest error could easily doom a $2.5 billion work of art, engineering, and science to a crater on the surface of its target destination.
The sheer insanity of injecting a car-sized rover into another planet’s atmosphere – with no prior braking of any kind – at around 10 times the speed of a bullet, deploying a house-sized parachute at supersonic velocities, and ultimately dropping that rover to the surface of Mars with a literal rocket-powered ‘sky crane’ is hard to exaggerate. The fact that that was what hundreds of the world’s smartest people concluded was the safest and most optimal architecture exemplifies just how extraordinarily difficult large-scale Mars landings really are.
With any luck, in 5-10 years, NASA, SpaceX, and the world will be watching with bated breath as Starship attempts its first Mars atmospheric entry, descent, and landing and (most likely) explodes somewhere in the middle. Regardless, SpaceX will be – and is, even today – standing on the shoulders of giants like those that just bullied the laws of physics and complexities of systems engineering into submission to land a second car-sized rover on Mars.
SpaceX makes no secret of its driving goal to make humans a multiplanetary species. Given SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s fixation on Mars and fondness for Tesla ‘Easter eggs’ and other gags, it’s hardly surprising to see Mars mentioned in the terms of service (ToS) agreement for beta users of its Starlink satellite broadband service. However, as a space lawyer, I certainly didn’t expect Starlink’s beta ToS to include the following provision:
“For services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith at the time of the Martian settlement.”
To be sure, SpaceX might have inserted Clause 9 as another one of Musk’s jokes that aren’t really jokes, like the time he invoked South Park’s infamous underwear gnomes in explaining how he intended to fund his ambitious Mars colonization plans. After all, there are no Starlink satellites orbiting Mars, and no prospective customers there yet, either. But international law is no laughing matter.
Taken literally, Starlink users must agree with SpaceX that Mars is a “free planet” and that disputes concerning Starlink services provided on Mars or while en route to the red planet via a SpaceX Starship — will be settled through self-regulation. But is this clause valid? What are the political implications of a transportation company proclaiming the legal status of a celestial body? Does such an attempt make strategic sense?
From a legal viewpoint, Clause 9 of Starlink’s terms of service should be regarded as void. Simply put, declaring Mars as a “free planet” and refusing any Earth-based authority over Martian activities conflicts with the international obligations of the United States under the Outer Space Treaty, which naturally take precedence over contractual terms of services.
First, under Articles I and III of the treaty, international law applies in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and influences all activities conducted thereby. Accordingly, Mars cannot be considered a “free planet” left to “self-governing principles” of dubious nature and origin, because it is rather fully subjected to the rule of law.
Further, Starlink’s refusal of Earth-based governmental authority on Mars is in clear violation of Article VIII of the treaty. According to this provision, states “retain jurisdiction and control”over any registered space objects and “any personnel thereof, while in outer space or on a celestial body.”
This principle is known as “quasi-territorial” jurisdiction and serves the purpose of ensuring the applicability of relevant national laws, preventing space from being abandoned to the rule of the strongest.
As an American company, SpaceX is obliged under U.S. law to respect these rules in order to get licenses from the U.S. government to conduct commercial launches and provide satellite services. This is mandated by Article VI of the treaty, according to which nongovernmental activities in space require the “authorization and continuing supervision of the appropriate State,” which is internationally responsible for assuring that these activities “are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty.”
As such, any attempt to declare “Mars as a free planet” and reject the authority of “Earth-based government” over Martian activities is in violation of international space law and would consequently bear no legal effect on third parties.
SpaceX’s declaration on the legal status of Mars is not without political implications. Interestingly enough, a thorough look at the first part of Starlink’s terms of service Clause 9 shows that SpaceX doesn’t seem to have problems with “Earth-based authority” regulating lunar activities:
“For Services provided to, on or in orbit around the planet Earth or the Moon, these Terms and any disputes […] will be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of California in the United States.”
Nevertheless, under international space law there are no grounds to distinguish between the moon and Mars; the same rules apply to “the Moon and other celestial bodies.” Assuming SpaceX knows this, it appears that the company is sending a political message to subvert the status quo and establish a separate regime for Mars.
Now, if SpaceX was merely an internet service provider, the issue would be purely theoretical with no reason for any further concern. However, SpaceX fully intends to send the first humans to Mars. As such, the company’s refusal to respect international law once its en route could put SpaceX’s passengers in real peril. These early passengers would fully depend on SpaceX for their survival en route to Mars and while on the surface, not to mention their prospects for returning to Earth. One the one hand, you have a company that controls the means to survival; on the other hand, you have a group of fragile individuals potentially stranded in an incredibly hostile environment a long, long way from home.
How could SpaceX seriously refer to principles established in “good faith” given such a massive imbalance of power? Politically speaking, declaring Mars a “free planet” would condemn its first inhabitants to the indisputable will of a private corporation — a dangerous situation threatening the fundamental rights of any human traveling with SpaceX.
Truth to be told, any attempt to escape international law on Mars may actually turn out to be strategically counterproductive. First, as any international lawyer knows, the only support for declaring Mars a “free planet” can only come from the applicability of international law, not its denial.
Under Article I (2) of the UN Charter, any independent community of humans enjoys the right to self-determination. If and when SpaceX’s vision of a million people living on Mars becomes a reality, there is no doubt that this community would be entitled to political independence and self-regulation. However, this outcome can neither be imposed in advance nor accomplished against international law. Rather, it can only develop from the natural evolution of the circumstances, under the safeguards of the rule of law.
In the early stages, any Martian settlement will have to rely on Earth’s supplies, technologies, personnel and overall logistical support. Conversely, this dependence will also imply the legitimate exercise of Earth-based authority in order to protect the settlement from degenerating into violence and Wild West types of behaviors.
Later, when the settlement has developed an autonomous structure and a balanced division of powers, then independence and self-regulation would naturally follow — but not a minute before the conditions for protecting fundamental rights are established.
Finally, another reason why SpaceX’s declaration may become counterproductive can be identified by looking at the company’s core business: launching spacecraft for a government-heavy customer base. Openly refusing governmental authority while still depending on governmental contracts is not exactly a smart move; it undermines the credibility of SpaceX as a reliable partner and advantages its competitors.
If a government had to choose between an expensive service from a company pledging allegiance to the rule of law and a cheap one from an enterprise trying to impose “self-governing principles established in good faith,” there is little doubt which one will be awarded a contract. Actually, with such terms of service, SpaceX would not even be authorized to launch its Starships toward Mars in the first place.
There can be no doubts that applying international law on other celestial bodies is the best way to preserve the exploration and use of outer space as the province of all humankind. Space activities, no matter where in the solar system, shall always be conducted under the safeguards of the rule of law. No company should be allowed to question this essential principle in the attempt to turn outer space into a modern Wild West.
SpaceX’s defiance of international law should be taken very seriously and stopped now, before the company is able to push it to the point of establishing its private domain on Mars. The future of space as a peaceful, fair and inclusive domain may very well depend on this.
Antonino Salmeri (@AntoninoSalmeri) is an attorney and doctoral researcher in space law at the University of Luxembourg, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. on space mining enforcement challenges with support from the Luxembourg National Research Fund.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
CEO Elon Musk says that he is “highly confident” that SpaceX will be ready to attempt its first crewed Starship mission to Mars as soon as 2026 – almost exactly six years from now.
Made as part of an interview at the 2020 Axel Springer Awards show in Germany, Musk’s latest comments represent a marked move towards optimism and confidence about the progress SpaceX is making with its Starship program. Effectively designed to make SpaceX’s existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets redundant, Starship aims to be the first fully-reusable orbital launch vehicle in the world, capable of placing 100+ metric tons (~220,000 lb) of cargo into low Earth orbit (LEO) at a cost of just a few million dollars per launch.
If that extraordinarily low launch cost can be realized, SpaceX will be able to affordably refuel Starships in orbit to give them the performance necessary to send and land 100 metric tons or more to the Moon and Mars.
With routine orbital refueling, Starship would be able to deliver a previously inconceivable volume of cargo to other moons and planets in the solar system. With enough Starships, Super Heavy boosters, and launch pads, the launch system could feasibly enable a large, sustainable human population on Mars and Earth’s moon, as well as unprecedentedly ambitious robotic missions almost anywhere short of deep interstellar space.
Impressively, as CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz first noted, Musk already floated 2026 as a possible target for SpaceX’s first crewed Mars launch during his inaugural presentation on the subject back in September 2016. While in absolutely no way an intentional result, the CEO appears to still believe – and now more confidently than ever – that 2026 is a viable target despite several huge hurdles and drastic Starship redesigns over the last four years.
Back in 2016, the rocket Musk unveiled was known as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), was to be built entirely out of advanced carbon fiber composites, and would have been the largest launch vehicle ever built by a large margin, standing 122m (~400 ft) tall with a diameter of 12m (~40 ft). That diameter quickly shrank to 9m (~30 ft) in 2017, while the rocket’s height also dropped before nearly rebounding – ironically – to 120m with the latest Starship iteration.
The most radical change, however, came just two years ago when Musk revealed that he was canceling work on a carbon composite Starship in favor of a design built almost entirely out of steel.
To be clear, SpaceX has a vast number of problems to solve and milestones to cross before Starship can be considered anywhere close to ready to launch humans at all, let alone launch and land humans on Mars and serve as a safe habitat for years. However, given that SpaceX has gone from paper to a steel rocket factory and (almost) multi-engine, high-altitude Starship flight tests in ~24 months, it’s not impossible to imagine the rocket being ready for crewed deep spaceflight another ~48 months from now.
HBO is developing a biopic-style show focused on the achievements of Elon Musk and SpaceX, specifically highlighting the company’s successful mission which launched and landed NASA astronauts this year. The limited series, produced by Channing Tatum’s Free Association, will be based on Ashlee Vance’s 2017 biography of Musk titled, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. A shorter title will be used for the six-episode show, however, which is simply “SpaceX.”
Other standout names on board for the SpaceX series include co-executive producer Len Amato, the former president of HBO Films, Miniseries, and Cinemax, along with Reid Carolin and Peter Kiernan from the Tatum-led production company. Vance himself will also take on an executive production role, and Doug Jung, known for 2016’s Star Trek Beyond screenplay, will be a writer. Michael Parets, who worked on sci-fi film Arrival, will oversee the project as the VP of Development and Productions for Free Association.
As a history-making commercial spaceflight company with impressive technology aimed at making humans a multiplanetary species, SpaceX is no stranger to the big and small screen alike. Musk and his rocket company have been featured in nearly every modern project discussing Mars, including National Geographic’s “Mars” mini series. Alongside behind-the scenes footage of SpaceX’s first successful Falcon 9 landing, an interview with the founder and CEO was featured in bits over several episodes to give insight to the technology shown on the show.
More recently, SpaceX and NASA have partnered with Tom Cruise to film the first-ever feature film to be produced outside of planet Earth. Reports in May indicated the project’s development was still in very early and preliminary stages, and casting decisions had not been made other than Cruise’s appearance. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine later confirmed the project via Twitter where Musk also indicated his enthusiasm for the project. “Should be a lot of fun!” he tweeted in reply to Bridenstine’s announcement.
With roles in television and film, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX generally plays himself, including Iron Man 2 and his less-serious appearance in a Thanksgiving episode of The Big Bang. The times he played a character instead include an episode of Rick and Morty as “Elon Tusk” and in Men in Black: International where he played an alien in an uncredited role. Musk is known to be a fan of Rick and Morty in particular, the show having inspired features included in Tesla’s Sentry Mode.
SpaceX and its CEO Elon Musk have their sights set on taking humans to Mars in the near future, and much of that involves fairly traditional engineering challenges like rocket fuels, engines, and payload capacities. However, the creativity and fun that’s been fused into the mission by the commercial space company definitely makes it stand out against industry peers. In that same spirit, Musk now looks to be entertaining an official ‘Flag of Mars’ design, and one of the first contenders features SpaceX’s flagship rocket, the Falcon 9.
Spaceflight photographer John Kraus recently shared a blog post on his Patreon account providing insight on the ups and downs of his profession. “I wrote an extensive piece for my @Patreon supporters about capturing Falcon 9 transiting the sun on Tuesday: How I did it, some (very) candid thoughts on the photo’s overwhelming reception, and why scrubs are a not-fun but worthwhile part of the process,” Kraus wrote on Twitter alongside the referenced photo.
In the post, Kraus was specifically highlighting SpaceX’s recent Starlink launch that was scrubbed several times before successfully taking flight. The popularity of the photo that resulted combined with Musk’s familiarity with his rocket company’s regular photographers seemed to both garner the CEO’s attention and inspire a suggestion for the image’s future. “Maybe this should be the flag of Mars,” Musk tweeted.
Musk has previously detailed his plans to build a city on the red planet by 2050 and fill it with one million people. To accomplish that goal, at least 1,000 Starships would need to be built, each ferrying 100 people and launching at least three daily. “Megatons per year to orbit are needed for life to become multi-planetary,” Musk previously explained. The long journey has also meant that entertainment plans were a must, including fine dining, something the CEO mentioned when he first introduced his long-term Mars vision.
On May 30, SpaceX did something no other private company has: launch astronauts on its own rocket to the International Space Station. The aerospace company was founded 18 years ago, with the goal of sending people into space. It’s president and CEO, Elon Musk, constantly talks about his dreams of making humanity a multi-planet species.
To that end, Musk has charged SpaceX will building a rocket capable of carrying as many as 100 people beyond low-Earth orbit. The craft, known as Starship, is the latest and great in Musk’s increasing larger rockets. Engineers have been busy working on designing new engines as well as increasingly more complex prototypes to put the burgeoning craft through a rapid development process.
Now that SpaceX has achieved human spaceflight, and (if all goes according to plan) should receive certification for regular flights to the space station, Musk is turning his sights back to Mars.
As such, he is focusing more of the company’s efforts on Starship development. In an email obtained by CNBC, Musk wrote, “Please consider the top SpaceX priority (apart from anything that could reduce Dragon return risk) to be Starship.”
The first Starship appeared on the flat Texas landscape in early 2019. Eagle-eyed onlookers near the company’s facilities in South Texas spotted the craft and have been monitoring its development process. For a while, Musk had dueling prototypes under construction, tasking a team in Florida to compete with the team in Texas for a little intra-company competition.
That was short-lived, as now SpaceX is keeping its Starship construction efforts confined to Texas. During a recent dramatic test firing of the craft’s attached raptor engine, the company’s fourth major prototype (dubbed SN4), went out in a blaze of glory. This lucky prototype had survived more rounds of testing than previous iterations, but still, the loss of the craft is a bit of a setback for SpaceX.
On Saturday, Musk tweeted out a photo showing the company’s Starship facilities in Boca Chica, saying that more would soon be added, including a massive bay that rivaled NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building.
Starship has already snagged a coveted NASA contract that will send humans to the lunar surface in 2024, but to do so, it must get off the ground. Perhaps a more concentrated effort will enable the craft to do so.
An early prototype, called Starhopper, took flight in August, but ever since, the company has failed to produce a new design that can fly. They came very close to SN4. It’s predecessor, SN5, is close to being finished, and the company is already working on SN6, so perhaps we will soon see a Starship fly.
Highest Resolution Image from Mars ever - This is what happens when NASA staff enjoys Thanksgiving holidays: the Curiosity Rover sits and waits - and takes thousands of photos which NASA combined to one final super picture, showing a region at the side of Mount Sharp. The original photo has a size of 2.43 GB and can be downloaded from its source.