By Ed Browne
SpaceX’s Starship rocket is due to make its first orbital flight in January or February if all goes according to plan, Elon Musk has said.
Speaking during a livestream at a meeting of the Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy on Wednesday, the founder and CEO said SpaceX will aim to launch Starship 12 times in 2022 according to Space.com—marking a significant step in the development of the huge Mars-bound rocket.
Starship has been in development for a while, with prototypes having conducted a flurry of high-alitude flight tests earlier in 2021 which largely ended up in smouldering wreckages.
One prototype, SN15, successfully took off and landed in May. Since then SpaceX has stopped Starship test flights while it works on building its Starbase launch pad from which future Starships will launch.
SpaceX has yet to launch a Starship prototype to space, and has yet to flight-test the booster stage at all. All of the test flights so far have been with, essentially, half of the full rocket with only a few engines active.
This is set to change in January 2022 when SpaceX will aim to launch a full prototype called SN20, which will include both stages with a combined total of 35 engines.
SpaceX says that Starship will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, its booster stage producing 16 million pounds of thrust enabling it to carry more than 100 tons to low-Earth orbit—SpaceX doesn’t say exactly how much. In total it will stand at just under 400 feet tall.
Once Starship launches, it appears as though SpaceX’s assessment will be correct.
NASA has a monster rocket of its own, the Space Launch System, or SLS, that will be the center of the space agency’s Artemis moon program.
Like Starship, SLS is yet to launch. When it does, it will produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust, “exerting more power than any rocket ever,” NASA‘s website stated as of Thursday morning. This would be at odds with SpaceX’s claim depending on which rocket ends up launching first. NASA is also aiming for an early 2022 SLS launch.
SLS stands at 322 feet tall in its Block 1 configuration, which it will use on its upcoming flight test. Depending on how it’s configured, SLS will be able to carry between 77 tons and 143 tons into low-Earth orbit, according to Space.com.
Before either SLS or Starship, the most powerful rocket ever used was the mighty Saturn V, which took astronauts to the moon as part of NASA’s Apollo program.
First launched in 1967, Saturn V stood at 363 feet tall, generating 7.6 million pounds of thrust that enabled it to carry 130 tons into Earth orbit. Despite its age the rocket holds up well against its modern heavy-launch equivalents.
SpaceX’s most powerful rocket in operation today, the Falcon Heavy, generates 5 million pounds of thrust and stands at 229 feet tall.