SpaceX unveils its stunning, shiny, stainless steel-clad Starship

SpaceX’s new Starship rocket, next to the older Falcon 1. SpaceX

SpaceX has unveiled its next-generation rocket, the Starship, and it’s a stainless steel stunner. The prototype rocket, called the Starship Mk1, sits at 50 meters (164 feet) tall with a diameter of 9 meters (29.5 feet) and will be powered by a total of 37 engines.

“This is the most inspiring thing that I’ve ever seen,” CEO Elon Musk said, looking admiringly at the prototype ship on display at an event held at SpaceX’s launch facility in Cameron County, Texas. He went on to say that a main goal of the event and of SpaceX’s work is to get the public inspired about space exploration and its potential for future: “Becoming a spacefaring civilization, being out there among the stars, this is one of the things that makes me glad to be alive.”

To achieve that lofty goal, Musk wants to make space travel like air travel. Planes and other modes of transport are reusable, which keeps costs down, and the hope is that a reusable rocket can bring the same affordability to space travel. The Starship will have both a reusable first stage which carries fuel and a reusable second stage for carrying passengers and cargo, which is, according to Musk, “a tough but not impossible thing.”

The aim is for the dry mass of the Starship to be 120 tonnes, with a propellant mass of 1,200 tonnes. Currently, the prototype weighs in closer to 200 tonnes, but Musk says this should be able to be shaved down to 120 tonnes or even 110 tonnes in production. The rocket will eventually be able to haul a payload of 150 tonnes to orbit and back with full reusability, putting it ahead of NASA’s next-generation SLS system which should be able to carry a payload of 95 to 130 tonnes.

And about that stunning shiny exterior: It’s made of chromium-nickel stainless steel which is lightweight and is as strong as composite materials at very low temperatures, making it ideal for surviving the cold of space. It also has a high melting temperature, meaning it can survive the heat of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. “The best design decision on this whole thing is 301 stainless steel,” Musk said.

There’s an ambitious timeline to match the ambitious rocket. The Starship testing will continue soon, following on from the Starhopper prototype’s hop tests. In just one to two months, SpaceX will launch the Starship Mk1 up to a height of approximately 65,000 feet (20 kilometers) before returning to Earth and landing.

After that, SpaceX is considering a flight to orbit with a booster and the ship, though this will likely use a newer prototype rather than the Mk1. The company aims to land on the moon within a few years, and after that, it’s on to Mars and beyond.

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