SpaceX Starship

The SpaceX Starship is both the second stage of a reusable launch vehicle and a spacecraft that is being developed by SpaceX, as a private spaceflight project.[14] It is being designed to be a long-duration cargo- and passenger-carrying spacecraft.[15] While it is tested on its own initially, it will be used on orbital launches with an additional booster stage, the Super Heavy, where Starship would serve as the second stage on a two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle.[16] The combination of spacecraft and booster is called Starship as well.[17]

SpaceX Starship
2018 artist's concept of the Starship's former design following stage separation
DesignerElon Musk (lead designer)[1][2][3]
Tom Mueller (engine designer)[4][5][6][7]
Country of originUnited States
Spacecraft typefully reusable, cargo (crewed option later)
Launch mass1,320,000 kg (2,910,000 lb) [8]
Dry mass120,000 kg (260,000 lb)(target)[9]
Payload capacity100,000 kg (220,000 lb)(initially;[9] target is 150,000 kg)[10]
Length50 m (160 ft)[11][12]
Diameter9 m (30 ft)[12]
StatusIn development
Built3 test articles
Maiden launchQ2 2020[13]
Engine details
Engines3 Raptor (sea-level nozzle) + 3 Raptor vacuum[8]
Thrust12,000 kN; 2,600,000 lbf (1,200 tf)
Specific impulsevacuum engine: 380 s
sea-level engine: 330 s (at sea level) 355 s (in vacuum)[9]
FuelSubcooled CH
 / LOX

Beginning in April 2019, a height reduced Starhopper prototype version began test flights. Prototype Starships are under construction and are expected to go through several iterations. Starship is an independent rocket in its own right—without any launch vehicle booster stage at all—as part of an extensive suborbital flight testing program to get launch and landing working and iterate on a variety of design details, particularly with respect to atmospheric reentry of the vehicle.[14][18][19][20]

Integrated system testing of Starship began in March 2019 with the addition of a single Raptor rocket engine to the first flight-capable propellant structure, Starhopper. Starhopper was used through August 2019 for static testing and low-altitude, low-velocity flight testing of vertical launches and landings[21] in July/August. All test articles have a 9-meter-diameter (30 ft) stainless steel hull.

SpaceX is planning to launch commercial payloads using Starship no earlier than 2021.[22]


The launch vehicle was initially mentioned in public discussions by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in 2012 as part of a description of the company's overall Mars system architecture, then known as "Mars Colonial Transporter" (MCT).[23] By August 2014, media sources speculated that the initial flight test of the Raptor-driven super-heavy launch vehicle could occur as early as 2020, in order to fully test the engines under orbital spaceflight conditions; however, any colonization effort was then reported to continue to be "deep into the future".[24]

In mid-September 2016, Musk noted that the Mars Colonial Transporter name would not continue, as the system would be able to "go well beyond Mars", and that a new name would be needed. The name selected was "Interplanetary Transport System" (ITS), although in an AMA on Reddit on October 23, 2016, Musk stated, "I think we need a new name. ITS just isn't working. I'm using BFR and BFS for the rocket and spaceship, which is fine internally, but...", without stating what the new name might be.[25] In September 2017, at the 68th annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, SpaceX unveiled the an updated vehicle design. Musk said, "we are searching for the right name, but the code name, at least, is BFR."[26]

In a September 2018 announcement of a planned 2023 lunar circumnavigation mission, a private flight called #dearMoon project,[27] Musk showed another redesigned concept for the second stage and spaceship with three rear fins and two front canard fins added for atmospheric entry, replacing the previous delta wing and split flaps shown a year earlier. The design was to use seven identically-sized Raptor engines in the second stage; the same engine model as would be used on the first stage. The second stage design had two small actuating canard fins near the nose of the ship, and three large fins at the base, two of which would actuate, with all three serving as landing legs.[28] Additionally, SpaceX also stated in the second half of the month that they were "no longer planning to upgrade Falcon 9 second stage for reusability."[29] The two major parts of the launch vehicle were given descriptive names in November: "Starship" for the upper stage and "Super Heavy" for the booster stage, which Musk pointed out was "needed to escape Earth’s deep gravity well (not needed for other planets or moons)."[16]

In January 2019, Elon Musk announced that the Starship would no longer be constructed out of carbon fiber, and that stainless steel would be used instead to build the Starship. Musk cited several reasons including cost, strength, and ease of production to justify making the switch.[30]

In May 2019, the Starship design changed back to just six Raptor engines, with three optimized for sea-level and three optimized for vacuum.[8] By late May 2019, the first prototype, Starhopper, was preparing for untethered flight tests in South Texas, while two orbital prototypes were under construction, one in South Texas begun in March and one on the Florida space coast begun before May. The build of the first Super Heavy booster stage was projected to be able to start by September.[21] At the time, neither of the two orbital prototypes yet had aerodynamic control surfaces nor landing legs added to the under construction tank structures, and Musk indicated that the design for both would be changing once again.[31] On 21 September 2019, the externally-visible "moving fins"[32] began to be added to the Mk1 prototype, giving a view into the promised mid-2019 redesign of the aerodynamic control surfaces for the test vehicles.[33][34]

In June 2019, SpaceX publicly announced discussions had begun with three telecom companies for using Starship, rather than Falcon 9, for launching commercial satellites for paying customers in 2021. No specific companies or launch contracts were announced at that time.[22]

In July 2019, the Starhopper made its initial flight test, a "hop" of around 20 m (66 ft) altitude,[35] and a second and final "hop" in August, reaching an altitude of around 150 m (490 ft)[36] and landing around 100 m (330 ft) from the launchpad.

SpaceX completed most of the Boca Chica prototype, the Starship Mk1, in time for Musk's next public update in September 2019. Watching the construction in progress before the event, observers online circulated photos and speculated about the most visible change, a move to two tail fins from the earlier three. During the event, Musk added that landing would now be accomplished on six dedicated landing legs, following a re-entry protected by glass heat tiles.[9] Updated specifications were provided: when optimized, Starship was expected to mass at 120,000 kg (260,000 lb) empty and be able to initially transport a payload of 100,000 kg (220,000 lb) with an objective of growing that to 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) over time. Musk suggested that an orbital flight might be achieved by the fourth or fifth test prototype in 2020, using a Super Heavy booster in a two-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle configuration,[37][38] and emphasis was placed on possible future lunar missions.[11]

In September 2019, Elon Musk unveiled Starship Mk1.[39][40]

In November 2019, the Mk1 test article came apart in a tank pressure test, and SpaceX stated they would move on to work on the Mk3 article. A few weeks later, the work on the vehicles in Florida slowed down substantially, with some assemblies that had been built in Florida for those vehicles being transported to the Texas Starship assembly location, and a reported 80 percent reduction in the workforce at the Florida assembly location as SpaceX pauses activities there.[41]


Starship is a 9-meter-diameter (30 ft), 50-meter-tall (164 ft), fully reusable spacecraft design with a dry mass of 120,000 kg (264,555 lb),[9] powered by six methane/oxygen-propellant Raptor engines.[8] Total Starship thrust is approximately 12,000 kN (2,600,000 lbf).

Unusual for previous launch vehicle and spacecraft designs, Starship is to function both as a second stage to reach orbital velocity on launches from Earth, and will also be used in space as an on-orbit long-duration spacecraft.[9][42][43]

The Starship design is intended to be fully reusable even when used as a second stage for orbital ascent from Earth. Starship is being designed so as to be capable of reentering Earth's atmosphere from orbital velocities and landing vertically, with a design goal of rapid reusability.[9]

As announced in May 2019,[8] Starship will use three sea-level optimized Raptor engines and three vacuum-optimized Raptor engines. These sea-level engines are identical to the engines on the booster, Super Heavy.[9] Transport use in space is expected to utilize a vacuum-optimized Raptor engine variant to optimize specific impulse (Isp) to approximately 380 s (3.7 km/s).[9]

Starship is planned to eventually be built in at least three operational variants:[44]

  • Spaceship: a large, long-duration spacecraft capable of carrying passengers[44] or cargo to interplanetary destinations, to LEO, or between destinations on Earth.
  • Satellite delivery spacecraft: a vehicle able to transport and place spacecraft into orbit,[22] or handle the in-space recovery of spacecraft and space debris for return to Earth or movement to another orbit. In the 2017 early design concept, this was shown with a large cargo bay door that can open in space to facilitate delivery and pickup of cargo.[44]
  • Tanker: a cargo-only propellant tanker to support the refilling of propellants in Earth orbit. The tanker will enable launching a heavy spacecraft to interplanetary space as the spacecraft being refueled can use its tanks twice, first to reach LEO and afterwards to leave Earth orbit. The tanker variant, also required for high-payload lunar flights, is expected to come only later; initial in-space propellant transfer will be from one standard Starship to another.[45]

Characteristics of Starship are to include:[44][43][46][47]

  • ability to re-enter Earth's atmosphere and retropropulsively land on a designated landing pad, landing reliability is projected by SpaceX to ultimately be able to achieve "airline levels" of safety due to engine-out capability
  • rapid reusability without the need for extensive refurbishment
  • automated rendezvous and docking operations
  • on-orbit propellant transfers between Starships[45]
  • ability of reach the Moon and Mars after on-orbit propellant loading
  • stainless steel structure and tank construction. Its strength-to-mass ratio is comparable to or better than the earlier SpaceX design alternative of carbon fiber composites across the anticipated temperature ranges, from the low temperatures of cryogenic propellants to the high temperatures of atmospheric reentry[48]
  • some parts of the craft will be built with a stainless steel alloy that "has undergone [a type of] cryogenic treatment, in which metals are ... cold-formed/worked [to produce a] cryo-treated steel ... dramatically lighter and more wear-resistant than traditional hot-rolled steel."[48]
  • methox pressure fed hot gas thrusters for attitude control, including the final pre-landing pitch-up maneuver from belly flop to tail down. Initial prototypes are using cold gas nitrogen thrusters, which have a substantially less-efficient mass efficiency, but are expedient for quick building to support early prototype flight testing.[9]
  • a thermal protection system against the harsh conditions of atmospheric reentry. This will include ceramic tiles,[49][50] (after earlier evaluating[49] a double stainless-steel skin with active coolant flowing in between the two layers or with some areas additionally containing multiple small pores that will allow for transpiration cooling.[51][52][53]) Options under study included hexagonal ceramic[54] tiles that could be used on the windward side of Starship.
  • a novel atmospheric re-entry approach for planets with atmospheres. While retropropulsion is intended to be used for the final landing maneuver on the Earth, Moon, or Mars, 99.9% of the energy dissipation on Earth reentry is to be removed aerodynamically, and on Mars, 99% aerodynamically even using the much thinner Martian atmosphere.[55]
  • as envisioned in the 2017 design unveiling, the Starship is to have a pressurized volume of approximately 1,000 m3 (35,000 cu ft), which could be configured for up to 40 cabins, large common areas, central storage, a galley, and a solar flare shelter for Mars missions plus 12 unpressurized aft cargo containers of 88 m3 (3,100 cu ft) total.[43]
  • flexible design options; for example, a possible design modification to the base Starship—expendable 3-engine Starship with no fairing, rear fins, nor landing legs—to optimize mass ratio for interplanetary exploration with robotic probes.[56]

According to Musk, when Starship is used for BEO launches to Mars, the functioning of the overall expedition system will necessarily include propellant production on the Mars surface. He says that this is necessary for the return trip and to reuse the spaceship to keep costs as low as possible. He also says that lunar destinations (circumlunar flybys, orbits and landings) will be possible without lunar-propellant depots, so long as the spaceship is refueled in a high-elliptical orbit before the lunar transit begins.[44] Some lunar flybys will be possible without orbital refueling as evidenced by the mission profile of the #dearMoon project.[57]

Specifications (planned)

Data from:[9][8]

General characteristics

  • Crew: ≤ 100
  • Length: 118 m (387 ft 2 in)
  • Diameter: 9 m (29 ft 6 in)
  • Empty mass: 120,000 kg (260,000 lb)
  • Payload to low Earth orbit: > 150,000 kg (330,000 lb)


  • Super Heavy: 37 × Raptor rocket engine (sea-level optimized)
    • Thrust: 72 MN (16,000,000 lbf)
  • Starship: 6 × Raptor rocket engine
    • Thrust: c.12 MN (2,700,000 lbf)

It is planned for the spacecraft to incorporate life support systems, but as of September 2019, Musk stated that it is yet to be developed, as the first flights will be uncrewed.[58][59][60]

Concerning shielding against ionizing radiation, Musk has stated that the radiation will lead to an increased risk of cancer but said he thinks "it's not too big of a deal".[61][62][63] Musk has been criticized for not addressing ionizing radiation in more detail.[61][64][65][66][67][68][69][70]

Super Heavy

Super Heavy
Country of originUnited Ststes
Used onStarship
General characteristics
Height68 m (223 ft)[71]
Diameter9 m (30 ft)
Gross mass3,530,000 kg (7,780,000 lb) [72][73]
Empty mass230,000 kg (510,000 lb) (estimated) [72]
Launch history
StatusUnder development
First flightQ2 2020[13]
Engine details
Engines24 to 37 Raptor[71]
Thrust72 MN (16,000,000 lbf)
Specific impulse330 s (3.2 km/s)[26]
FuelSubcooled CH
 / LOX

Super Heavy,[15] the booster stage "needed to escape Earth’s deep gravity well", is 68 meters (223 ft) long and 9 m (30 ft) in diameter and expected to have a gross liftoff mass of 3,680,000 kg (8,110,000 lb).[72][73] It is to be constructed of stainless steel tanks and structure, holding subcooled liquid methane and liquid oxygen (CH
/LOX) propellants, powered by 24 to 37 Raptor rocket engines[71] providing 72 MN (16,000,000 lbf) total liftoff thrust.[71][74] The booster is projected to eventually return to land on the launch mount,[46][44][47][43] although it will initially have landing legs to support the early VTVL development testing of Super Heavy.[75][76][77]

The initial prototype Super Heavy will be full size.[78] It is expected however, to initially fly with less than the full complement of 37 engines, perhaps approximately 20.[79]

In September 2019, several Super Heavy external design changes were announced. The booster stage will have six fins that serve exclusively[9]:26:25–28:35 as fairings to cover the six landing legs, and four diamond-shaped welded steel grid fins[80] to provide aerodynamic control on descent.[81]


Two test articles were being built by March 2019, and three by May.[82] The low-altitude, low-velocity Starship test flight rocket was used for initial integrated testing of the Raptor rocket engine with a flight-capable propellant structure, and was slated to also test the newly designed autogenous pressurization system that is replacing traditional helium tank pressurization as well as initial launch and landing algorithms for the much larger 9-metre-diameter (29 ft 6 in) rocket.[51] SpaceX originally developed their reusable booster technology for the 3-meter-diameter Falcon 9 from 2012 to 2018. The Starhopper prototype was also the platform for the first flight tests of the full-flow staged combustion methalox Raptor engine, where the hopper vehicle was flight tested with a single engine in July/August 2019,[83] but could be fitted with up to three engines to facilitate engine-out tolerance testing.[51]

The high-altitude, high-velocity 'Starship orbital prototypes' are planned to be used to develop and flight test thermal protection systems and hypersonic reentry control surfaces.[51] Each orbital prototype is expected to be outfitted with more than three Raptor engines.[21][84]

Starship prototypes
Vehicle Status Maximum altitude Build site
Starhopper Retired 150 m (490 ft) Boca Chica, Texas
Starship Mk1 Partially destroyed N/A Boca Chica, Texas
Starship Mk2 Suspended N/A Cocoa, Florida
Starship Mk3 Under construction N/A Boca Chica, Texas
Starship Mk4 Under construction N/A Cocoa, Florida


The construction of the initial test article—the "Starship test flight rocket"[85] "test hopper,"[86] "Starship Hopper"[87] or "Starhopper"[88][89] —was begun in early December 2018 and the external frame and skin was complete by 10 January 2019. Constructed outside in the open on a SpaceX property just two miles (3.2 km) from Boca Chica Beach in South Texas, the external body of the rocket rapidly came together in less than six weeks. Originally thought by watchers of construction at the SpaceX South Texas Launch Site to be the initial construction of a large water tower, the stainless steel vehicle was built by welders and construction workers in more of a shipyard form of construction than traditional aerospace manufacturing. The full Starhopper vehicle is 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter and was originally 39 meters (128 ft) tall in January 2019.[48][86] Subsequent wind damage to the nose cone of the vehicle resulted in a SpaceX decision to scrap the nose section, and fly the low-velocity hopper tests with no nose cone, resulting in a much shorter test vehicle.[90]

From mid-January to early-March, a major focus of the manufacture of the test article was to complete the pressure vessel construction for the liquid methane and liquid oxygen tanks, including plumbing up the system, and moving the lower tank section of the vehicle two miles (3.2 km) to the launch pad on 8 March.[91] Integrated system testing of the first prototype (Starhopper)—with the newly-built ground support equipment (GSE) at the SpaceX South Texas facilities — began in March 2019. "These tests involved fueling Starhopper with LOX and liquid methane and testing the pressurization systems, observed via icing of propellant lines leading to the vehicle and the venting of cryogenic boil off at the launch/test site. During a period of over a week, StarHopper underwent almost daily tanking tests, wet dress rehearsals and a few pre-burner tests."[51]

Following initial integrated system testing of the Starhopper test vehicle with Raptor engine serial number 2 (Raptor S/N 2) in early April, the engine was removed for post-test analysis and several additions were made to the Starhopper. Attitude control system thrusters were added to the vehicle, along with shock absorbers for the non-retractable landing legs, and quick-disconnect connections for umbilicals. Raptor S/N 4 was installed in early June for fit checks, but the first test flight that is not tethered was expected to fly with Raptor S/N 5,[90] until it suffered damage during testing at SpaceX Rocket Development and Test Facility, in McGregor, Texas. Subsequently, Raptor S/N 6 was the engine used by Starhopper for its untethered flights.[92]


The Starhopper was used to flight test a number of subsystems of the Starship and to begin to expand the flight envelope as the Starship design is iterated.[86][93][94] Initial tests began in March 2019.[95] All test flights of the Starhopper were at low altitude.[96] On 3 April 2019, SpaceX conducted a successful static fire test in Texas of its Starhopper vehicle, which ignited the engine while the vehicle remained tethered to the ground.[97]

The first static fire test of the Starhopper, with a single Raptor engine attached, occurred on 3 April 2019. The firing was a few seconds in duration, and was classed as successful by SpaceX.[51] A second tethered test followed just two days later, on 5 April.[82][98]

By May 2019, SpaceX was planning to conduct flight tests both in South Texas and on the Florida space coast.[18][21][90] The FAA issued a one-year experimental permit in June 2019 to fly Starhopper at Boca Chica, including pre-flight and post-flight ground operations.[99]

On 16 July 2019, the Starhopper caught fire. According to Tim Dodd, "the damage to StarHopper is unknown at this time."[100]

The maiden flight test of the Starhopper test vehicle, and also the maiden flight test of any full-flow staged combustion rocket engine ever, was on 25 July 2019, and attained a height of 18 m (59 ft).[83][101] This was not a full-duration burn but a 22-second test, and it caused fire on the vegetations nearby.[102] SpaceX is developing their next-generation rocket to be reusable from the beginning, just like an aircraft, and thus needs to start with narrow flight test objectives, while still aiming to land the rocket successfully to be used subsequently in further tests to expand the flight envelope.[83] The second and final untethered test flight of the Starhopper test article was carried out on 27 August 2019, to a VTVL altitude of 150 m (490 ft).[92]

Flight No. Date and time (UTC) Vehicle Launch site Altitude Outcome Duration
1 5 April 2019 Starhopper South Texas ~ 1 m (3 ft) Success
Tethered hop which hit tethered limits. With a single Raptor engine, S/N 2.[90]
2 25 July 2019[103] Starhopper South Texas 20 m (66 ft)[83] Success ~ 22 seconds
First free flight test. Single Raptor engine, S/N 6. Was previously scheduled for the day before but was aborted.[83] A test flight attempt on 24 July was scrubbed.[104]
3 27 August 2019[92]
Starhopper South Texas 150 m (490 ft)[92] Success ~ 57 seconds[106]
Single Raptor engine, S/N 6. SpaceX called this the "150 meter Starhopper Test" on their livestream. Starhopper was retired after this launch, with some parts being reused for other tests.[92][107] The test flight attempt on 26 August was scrubbed due to a problem with the Raptor engine igniters.[104] This launch won the SpaceNews Awards Readers’ Choice of Breakthrough of the Year 2019.[108]

High-altitude prototypes

By December 2018, initial construction of two high-altitude prototype ships had begun, referred to as Mk1 at Boca Chica, Texas,[109] and Mk2 at the space coast of Florida in Cocoa.[21][109] Planned for high-altitude and high-velocity testing,[110] the prototypes were described to be taller than the Starhopper, have thicker skins, and a smoothly curving nose section.[21][21][84][111] Both rototypes measured 9 m (30 ft) in diameter by approximately 50 m (160 ft) in heigh.[112]

On November 20, 2019, the Starship Mk1 was partially destroyed during max pressure tank testing, when the forward LOX tank ruptured along a weld line of the craft's steel structure, propelling the bulkhead several meters upwards. The upper bulkhead went airborne and landed some distance away from the craft. No injuries were reported.[113] In a statement concerning the test anomaly, SpaceX said they will retire the Mk1 and Mk2 prototypes after the incident, and focus on Mk3 and Mk4 designs, which are closer to the flight specifications.[114][115] Construction had begun on the Mk4 Starship in Florida by mid-October 2019.[116]

Super Heavy prototypes

At least two prototype Super Heavy vehicles will be built: SH Mk1 in Texas and SH Mk2 in Florida, but their construction would begin after the first two Starship prototypes are built.[9]

Initial flight testing of the Super Heavy booster stage would follow Starship orbital testing. By May 2019, SpaceX projected that construction of the first Super Heavy would start in August 2020.[21][117]

Intended uses

Starship is intended to become the primary SpaceX orbital vehicle, as SpaceX has announced it intends to fully replace its existing Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon 2 fleet with Starship during the early 2020s.[19][44][26]:24:50–27:05 In November 2019 Elon Musk estimated that fuel will cost $900,000 per launch and total launch costs could drop as low as $2 million.[118]

Starship is designed to be utilized for:[19][46]

In 2017, SpaceX mentioned the theoretical ability of using a boosted Starship to carry passengers on suborbital flights between two points on Earth in under one hour, providing commercial long-haul transport on Earth, competing with long-range aircraft.[121][122] SpaceX however announced no concrete plans to pursue the two stage "Earth-to-Earth" use case.."[26][93][123] Over two years later, in May 2019, Musk floated the idea of using single-stage Starship to travel up to 10,000 kilometers (6,200 mi) on Earth-to-Earth flights at speeds approaching Mach 20 (25,000 km/h; 15,000 mph) with an acceptable payload saying it "dramatically improves cost, complexity & ease of operations."[124]

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