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Explained: What is SpaceX’s SN5 Starship prototype that completed its first test flight?

Designed by SpaceX, Starship is a spacecraft and super-heavy booster rocket meant to act as a reusable transportation system for crew and cargo to the Earth’s orbit, Moon and Mars.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 7, 2020 8:08:15 am
Starship, SpaceX, SpaceX’s Falcon, Crew Dragon, SpaceX Mars ship, indian express, elon musk, NASA, express explained Starship is launched on Tuesday in south Texas. (SpaceX via AP)

On Tuesday (August 4), just two days after SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule landed in the Gulf of Mexico, a prototype of the company’s uncrewed “Mars ship”, a stainless steel test vehicle called SN5, and which is a part of the Starship spacecraft, successfully flew to an altitude of over 500 feet for a little less than 60 seconds. The test flight was carried out at Boca Chica in Southern Texas, SpaceX’s commercial launch site designed for orbital missions.

What is Starship?

Designed by SpaceX, Starship is a spacecraft and super-heavy booster rocket meant to act as a reusable transportation system for crew and cargo to the Earth’s orbit, Moon and Mars. SpaceX has described Starship as “the world’s most powerful launch vehicle” with an ability to carry over 100 metric tonnes to the Earth’s orbit.

What is the idea behind developing this spacecraft?

Starship has been under development since 2012 and is a part of Space X’s central mission to make interplanetary travel accessible and affordable and to become the first private company to do so. Therefore, the company is working on building a fleet of reusable launch vehicles, capable of carrying humans to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.

Reusability is at the heart of making interplanetary travel accessible, SpaceX believes, since a majority of the launch cost is attributed to the expense of building a rocket which is ultimately designed to burn up during re-entry. “Following the commercial model, a rapidly reusable space launch vehicle could reduce the cost of traveling to space by a hundredfold,” SpaceX mentions on its website.

Once functional, the Starship spacecraft will enter Mars’ atmosphere at a speed of 7.5 km per second and will be designed to withstand multiple entries. While no human being has set foot on Mars yet, the planet continues to intrigue scientists and researchers because of the possibility that life existed there once. SpaceX is planning its first cargo mission to the red planet by 2022 and by 2024, the company wants to fly four ships including two cargo and two crewed ones to Mars.

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Late last month, a series of unmanned missions to Mars were launched by the US, China and the first one for the middle-eastern world called Hope.

So what all can Starship do?

Starship can deliver satellites further and at lower marginal costs than SpaceX’s Falcon vehicles and it can ferry both cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Once developed, Starship is also expected to help carry large amounts of cargo to the Moon, for human spaceflight development and research. Beyond the Moon, the spacecraft is being designed for carrying crew and cargo for interplanetary missions as well.

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