Scientists Consider Missions for Heavy-Duty Starship Rocket

Scientists are considering scientific missions for SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy stack once it becomes operational. Possibilities include sending heavier and more complex robotic missions that can use Starship’s promised future ability to launch up to 100 tons of payload.

Proposed missions could include using a Starship-derived lunar lander to return a sample of lunar ice from the Moon. Unlike the lunar lander that SpaceX is designing for NASA’s Artemis program, this mission would not have a crew. NASA Ames scientist Jennifer Heldman proposed this mission to study how this ice could have been deposited over billions of years and whether the landing site that the sample return mission returns ice from would be suitable for a future lunar base.

Jennifer Heldman was previously the lead author of a whitepaper on Starship’s potential for lunar and Mars exploration. Elon Musk’s ambitions for Starship include sending cargo, and eventually people, to Mars. Heldman backed that up by saying that launching hardware on Starship could lead to a greater scientific “return on investment” for every dollar spent.

Heldman’s previous experience includes helping plan Mars missions like the Perseverance rover. Perseverance weighed 2,260 in Earth gravity. Starship could launch far heavier scientific packages.

Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, proposed a probe to Mercury. Missions to Mercury require additional shielding from the intense solar heat and radiation in Mercury’s vicinity. Unlike Venus, Mercury doesn’t have a permanent, highly corrosive atmosphere, but the additional protections would still require additional mass that needs to be launched. A more powerful rocket like the Starship/Super Heavy stack would allow probes to have that additional protection without having to eliminate proposed scientific instruments.

Starship could also launch larger probes into interstellar space. While it may be a while before a probe can make the Voyager probes’ “Grand Tour,” it may still be able to make a close pass of one or two of the outer planets on its way to interstellar space. The Voyager probes did make some surprising finds about the nature of interstellar space that scientists can now plan for.

While SpaceX did recently land a contract to launch the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope on a Falcon Heavy, Starship could launch even bigger telescopes. NASA scientists are also discussing a possible follow-up for the Europa Clipper (which SpaceX will also launch) tentatively called the Europa Lander.

SpaceX plans to charge $10 million a launch for uncrewed missions on Starship. One downside is that hardware may have to refuel before going on to its final destination — something that SpaceX is taking a closer look at with a planned refueling demonstration for NASA. It also has a contract to launch at least one refueling depot into space.

SpaceX keeps costs down by reusing hardware whenever possible. Some Falcon 9 first stage boosters have already been reused several times. It also reuses its Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon spacecraft. It plans to make Starship equally reusable with a quick turnaround to help keep costs down.