Investing in Space

Elon Musk will unveil SpaceX's first Starship rocket tonight: Here's what you need to know

Key Points
  • SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk will give an update on the company's next-generation rocket on Saturday evening.
  • Called Starship, this rocket represents the vessel of SpaceX's vision: Make humanity a species that lives on more than one planet.
  • The rocket assembled in Texas represents the first iteration of Starship, as it only has three engines installed.
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SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk will provide an update on the company's next-generation rocket as well as its plans for trips to the moon and Mars from a growing facility in the southernmost part of Texas Saturday evening. 

Called Starship, this rocket represents the vessel of SpaceX's vision: Make humanity a species that lives on more than one planet.

The day before Musk's presentation, SpaceX mounted the top nosecone of Starship, getting the spacecraft ready for its media debut.

The first SpaceX rocket Starship under construction in Texas.
@ElonMusk

Starship's design and name have gone through multiple changes since Musk officially unveiled the program a couple years ago. It's been previously known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) among other code names.

In essence, Starship is the top portion of what will eventually be a massive rocket. Built in similar sections to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets, the Starship will sit atop the Super Heavy booster, the next piece of hardware the company will build.

While Starship's design has changed over the years, the goal of the rocket has not: Launch as many as 100 people at a time into deep space, using a rocket that can launch and land multiple times. Currently, SpaceX is able to land and reuse part of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. But Starship would take that to the next level and would help lower the cost per flight of a rocket launch. SpaceX's goal with reusing rockets is to make spaceflight more akin to commercial air travel, where only refueling and minor maintenance is needed in between flights.

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The rocket assembled in Texas represents the first iteration of Starship, as it only has three engines installed. In designs shown last year, the final version of Starship will have six of the company's massive Raptor rocket engines.

Over the past few months, SpaceX tested a prototype called "Starhopper," which only had one engine and flew a couple of low altitude test flights. Additionally, SpaceX is also building a second Starship at its facilities in Florida, another place where the company is planning to conduct launches.

Last year SpaceX announced that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa signed to fly on Starship around the moon, in a trip described as a mission to bring along artists of various disciplines to experience space. Maezawa, one of the richest people in Japan, paid a "very significant" deposit toward the trip, although SpaceX declined to say how much.

In addition to the Maezawa's deposit, SpaceX has steadily raised funding for Starship, as well as for its internet satellite network called Starlink. Musk said in 2018 that Starship and Super Heavy would cost somewhere between $2 billion and $10 billion to develop, much more than the near $500 million SpaceX spent building its Falcon Heavy rocket.

So far this year, SpaceX has sought more than $1.3 billion across three funding rounds. SpaceX is one of the most valuable private tech company's in the world, with a valuation of more than $33 billion.

SpaceX is planning to begin commercial operations with Starship in 2021. Musk previously set 2022 as the company's goal for its first Mars mission, although Starship would only carry cargo for that initial trip.

What CEO Elon Musk has shared about Starship so far

Starship is made of stainless steel, which gives it a very reflective surface. With nearby residents and fans closely monitoring the rocket's development, Musk has often responded to questions and comment on Twitter – his favorite method of communicating about his companies.

Starship on its own rises 50 meters (over 160 feet) tall. SpaceX chose stainless steel for the rocket's exterior material because, among other reasons, Musk said it is lighter and can withstand higher temperatures than materials such as composites.

SpaceX workers load the bottom half of Starship on to a transporter.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter

Musk shared that this Starship Mark 1, as the one in Texas is called, weighs around 200 tons (400,000 pounds) without any fuel on board, while it will be nearly 1,400 tons (2,800,000 pounds) once fuel is loaded. Stacked on top of Super Heavy, the full rocket will have a mass of about 5,000 tons (10,000,000) once complete, Musk said.

Starship will have six legs, according to Musk, including one under its of each of the large fins at the rocket's base. Musk says those fins will generate lift when the rocket is traveling at hypersonic speeds (typically defined as over five times the speed of sound), which will help the rocket as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.

"Essentially controlled falling, like a skydiver," Musk said.

The rocket will also feature reusable tiles, which SpaceX has begun testing on flights of its Dragon capsule.

Musk also said there is "a huge amount of hardware" in the top portion of Starship. That includes batteries from Musk's other company, Tesla, which he said are needed for the "enormous forced need to move the rocket's fins during flight." Asked why SpaceX used Tesla batteries, Musk said "it would be pretty embarrassing to use a non-Tesla battery!"

A photo inside the base of SpaceX's first Starship rocket, showing three of the company's Raptor engines.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter

Starship's three Raptor engines are housed in the base of the rocket. The engines are built at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and tested at its facilities in McGregor, Texas.

Musk said he hopes Starship Mark 1's first flight is "within a month or so," although he added the caveat that it "is quite a complex beast."

While Starship's end goal is Mars, the company's founder has said that the rocket would "also be good for creating a base on the moon."

"We'll probably have a base on the moon before going to Mars," Musk said.

Those plans may end up aligning with NASA's goal to have its next human lander on the surface of the moon by 2024. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told CNBC in February that NASA's lunar plans are also "likely to be a public-private partnership," meaning the government agency will partner with companies like SpaceX to achieve this goal.