NASA Ames Research Center Scientist Leads Authorship of Whitepaper Analyzing Starship’s Potential for Mars Exploration

NASA research scientist Jennifer L. Heldmann is the lead author for a new whitepaper describing the Starship spacecraft’s potential for accelerating research on Mars and the Moon. The paper, titled “Accelerating Martian and Lunar Science through SpaceX Starship Missions,” says that Starship could change the way that NASA has traditionally conducted interplanetary research missions.

SpaceX’s primary goal for Starship is to enable transportation of larger payloads and crews to Mars. Its development has not been an easy process, with obstacles including exploding prototypes and regulatory hurdles that forced it to delay some tests. Due to the FAA’s ongoing environmental review, SpaceX was forced to delay the first orbital test of the prototype SN20 until January 2022, for instance.

However, once it gets past these hurdles, it could send payloads of up to 100 metric tons to the Moon or Mars. The spacecraft could be refueled in Earth orbit and may also be refueled on the Martian surface using ISRU techniques. The whitepaper says that Starship could be used to extract more science per dollar spent on exploratory missions.

For reference, the most recent Mars rover, Perseverance, weighs 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms) in Earth gravity and measures 10 feet (3 meters) long, 9 feet (2.7 meters) wide, and 7 feet (2.2 meters) tall. Perseverance is the largest and most capable rover sent to Mars to date and also included the experimental Ingenuity helicopter.

The whitepaper recommends a more rapid development schedule and higher risk tolerance to take full advantage of the Starship launch schedule. To enable the faster schedule, a revamped support system within NASA will be needed, including a “fast track” for mission approval, funding, and deployment. It also suggested that the faster launch schedule and more aggressive science efforts would provide more opportunities for women and minorities in STEM fields.

SpaceX anticipates that it could send Starship spacecraft to Mars in every launch window, which occurs once about every 26 months, once it is fully operational.

Starship derivatives include the Human Landing System (HLS) that will be used to land humans on the Moon for NASA’s Artemis Program. SpaceX has gotten the go-ahead to continue development of the HLS now that the legal battle between NASA and Blue Origin is over.

It also suggested that human crews could live on Starships for a few years until a more developed Martian base can be constructed. It mentioned a perennial concern for crewed exploration: the health effects of radiation. Past proposals for reducing exposure to radiation have included some form of radiation shielding, including the possibility of burying a Martian habitat with a few meters of regolith.

Jennifer Heldmann is a research scientist working at NASA’s Ames Research Center. She has been involved in planning several exploratory missions to Mars and is also currently involved in planning future human exploration missions to Mars. She has authored or co-authored papers published in Planetary Science Journal, Bulletin of Volcanology, Planetary and Space Sci., and Astrobiology.