By Dr John Sydenham
Elon Musk is the richest person in the world in 2021 and he is presently on course to change the world entirely by 2030.
His most important creations are SpaceX and Tesla. Tesla made electric vehicles a credible option and SpaceX is likely to dominate the global economy within 10 years. Tesla is worth $1 trillion and SpaceX is worth $100 billion but expect SpaceX to soar past Tesla in the next 5 years.
This is why SpaceX will change everything: the SpaceX Starship is amazingly cheap with payload costs similar to those of aeroplanes ($4-$8 per kilo):
Most of the components of Starship have been tested and the Federal Aviation Authority will finish the approval process for the first full, orbital Starship launch on December 31st 2021. Expect the first orbital test of Starship in January 2022.
Starship will be the only orbital launch provider by 2024. Its main business will move from orbital launch to the supply of moon bases. NASA awarded SpaceX the contract for the 2024 Artemis moonbase mission in April. In parallel with this project SpaceX intends to begin the creation of a Mars base in the late 2020s with a Mars colony established by 2050.
Once SpaceX becomes established as the Boeing or Airbus of spaceflight there will be "Spacelines" like airlines and space freight companies operating services across the solar system. Mars will be the big destination. It is also possible that Starships will provide suborbital flights around earth, transporting 100 passengers from London to Sydney in 30 minutes.
Why go to Mars? Mars has a third of Earth's gravity and plentiful frozen water and carbon dioxide for fuel and oxygen so it is the ideal location for a space base. The top section of the new rocket, the true "Starship", can take off directly from Mars or the Moon and visit the solar system but Earth's stronger gravity means that Starships need a massive, re-usable booster to leave Earth for other planets.
|Impression of Starship plus booster|
Mars is also commercially attractive. Metals extracted from Mars and the nearby asteroid belt could be returned to Earth automatically and fairly cheaply with the use of dedicated re-entry pods and parachutes. They would literally be "dropped off".
However Elon Musk is not devoting his enormous fortune to a project to colonise Mars for purely commercial reasons. He is mainly motivated by the need for humanity to have a planet 'B' just in case we make Earth uninhabitable with nuclear war etc. The Martians would be able to return to Earth and colonise it once the apocalypse had passed. How likely is he to succeed?
The first step in this project is to create a fleet of inexpensive launch vehicles. There are two ways to lower the cost of launching spacecraft. The first is to build massive re-usable rockets because the fuel costs per payload kilo decrease with size, the second is to develop a new power source such as fusion power. Musk wants to colonise Mars by 2050 so only the first option is available. Musk's objective is to create a fleet of thousands of low cost, giant, re-usable rockets called "Starship".
It looks like Starship will be a success. A by-product of Starship meeting the parameters for Mars colonisation is that each launch is very inexpensive, costing only about $2m, and up to 100 tonnes of cargo can be put into orbit at a time. A hundred one tonne satellites can be put into Earth orbit at around $40,000 launch cost each. This means it is probable that Starship will benefit from its own success by cornering the global space transport market. At present each Starship prototype probably costs £200m but as mass production gets under way this figure will be drastically reduced - SpaceX must be expecting a target price of around $20m to $50m per vehicle if each is to be re-used only 10-20 times at $2m per launch. This means that within a year or two SpaceX will be building 20 Starships a year for every $billion pa profit from space activities.
Ships will be queued up for launches every two years because the distance between Mars and the Earth varies between about 60m and 400m miles over a 2 year synodic period:a fleet of over 200 starships to provide 200 flights to Mars every two years. Up to 100 people can be transported on each flight. 200 flights will be able to transport at least 10,000 colonists plus supplies.
The starships will, in total, cost about $10bn and each flight will be $2m-$3m. It will cost $10 bn to $20bn to set up the infrastructure of the colony so for $25 bn - $45 bn a sustainable colony on Mars will be created. This is only 25% of Elon Musk's fortune although he would expect much of the cost to be met by paying passengers.
The likely colonisation program will at first involve the transport of large solar panel arrays and possibly a nuclear fission reactor or two. The first use of this energy will be to produce methane fuel by generating hydrogen and oxygen from the electrolysis of water and then reacting the hydrogen with martian atmospheric CO2 to make methane via the Sebatier process.
|Sunrise on Mars SpaceX|