SpaceX’s new launch vehicle system, called Starship, will replace its current rockets, and may be the first craft to bring humans to Mars. The high tech ship has one potential weakness, however: bird poop.
Starship will reportedly be fully reusable and extremely cheap to launch. Musk has made the rather bold claim that round-trip tickets to Mars could cost as little as $500,000 and maybe even fall below $100,000, or, “low enough that most people in advanced economies could sell their home on Earth & move to Mars if they want.”
Very dependent on volume, but I’m confident moving to Mars (return ticket is free) will one day cost less than $500k & maybe even below $100k. Low enough that most people in advanced economies could sell their home on Earth & move to Mars if they want.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2019
Musk has said he may release the full specifications of the spacecraft in March or April but what we do know is that the 180-foot (55 meter) tall spaceship that will enter orbit atop Super Heavy, a rocket booster that measures approximately 220 feet (67 meters) tall.
The eccentric billionaire CEO previously alluded to “radical” and “counter-intuitive” design changes, including making the craft out of stainless steel alloys rather than carbon fiber composites.
A second new design feature he has referred to is a “bleeding” heat shield that allows liquid to seep through tiny pores, acting as a cooling system. However, aerospace engineers are skeptical that such an idea could work for one rather simple, and kind of disgusting reason: bird poop.
All spaceships require a heat shield to survive transit through the atmosphere, especially at re-entry speeds of up to 19,000mph, when molecules at the cone of the craft can transform into superheated plasma that can melt or even vaporise some of mankind’s hardest materials.
Musk says Starship’s nose cone could be exposed to temperatures of up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit (1482 degrees Celsius), but the current steel-alloy that Musk proposes to use for Starship melts at 2,400 degrees F – far from ideal.
The proposed solution would work much the same way as human skin does. Starship would “sweat” away heat using water or spare methane fuel as the stand-in for sweat. But, just like the pores in our skin, Starship’s metallic pores could become clogged with dirt.
Walt Engelund, an aerospace engineer and the director of the Space Technology and Exploration Directorate at NASA Langley, agreed saying: “You can imagine it wouldn’t take much to clog something like that, if they were microscopic pores.”
While SpaceX is no doubt aware of such potential pitfalls, it remains to be seen just how the heat shield will actually take shape once the full specifications are released in the coming months.
The ultimate goal is that Starship will refuel in low Earth orbit before taking 100 passengers and more than 100 tons (90,000 kg) of cargo to Mars and then making the return journey some time later.
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