With the advent of commercial space travel, NASA and private company SpaceX have entered the race to build rockets suitable for this type of service. Who will be the first to take us to the moon? The international edition of The Conversation offered a small overview of the latest rockets for space tourism.
With the advent of commercial space travel, the drive is reborn and spawning a new space race. NASA has selected the private company SpaceX for its commercial space missions, but the company is also pursuing a research goal.
To support flights to and from the moon, NASA and SpaceX are developing new heavy-lift rockets: SpaceX’s SpaceX Starship and NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
Those who are aware of what’s new in IT technology, wonder how they are different and which one is more powerful?
Starship from SpaceX
Rockets go through several stages to get into orbit. By discarding spent fuel tanks during flight, the rocket becomes lighter and simpler to speed up. Once launched, SpaceX’s launch system will consist of two stages: the launch vehicle, known as the Super Heavy, and the Starship.
Super Heavy is powered by a Raptor rocket engine that burns a mixture of liquid methane and liquid oxygen. The basic principle of a liquid propellant rocket engine is that two jet fuels, kerosene as a fuel and liquid oxygen as an oxidizer, combine in a combustion chamber and ignite. The flame produces high-pressure hot gas that is ejected at high velocity through the engine nozzle to create thrust.
The rocket delivers 15 million pounds of thrust at launch, roughly double that of the Apollo era rockets. At the top of the launch vehicle is the Starship, which features six more Raptor engines and a large satellite compartment, compartments for 100 crew members, and even extra fuel tanks for refueling in space, which is especially important for extended interplanetary space flights.
Starship is designed to operate in the vacuum of space and the atmospheres of Earth and Mars, using small movable wings to glide to the targeted landing area.
Once over the landing zone, Starship rolls over to an upright location and uses its Raptor inboard engines to descend and land. It has enough thrust to lift off the surface of Mars or the Moon, overcome the weaker gravity of those planets, and return to Earth. Both Starship and Super Heavy are fully recyclable, and the entire system is designed to lift more than 100 tons of payload to the surface of the Moon or Mars.
Space Launch System from NASA
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is vying to take the lead from the discontinued Saturn 5 as the most powerful rocket the agency has ever used. The current incarnation (SLS block 1) is almost 100 meters high.
The main stage of the SLS, containing over 3.3 million liters of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (equivalent to 1.5 times the size of an Olympic pool), is powered by four RS-25 engines, three of which have been used on previous Space Shuttle spacecraft. Their main difference from the Raptors is that they burn liquid hydrogen as an alternative to methane.
The Space Launch System plans to sell the Orion crew capsule, which can accommodate up to six crew members over 3 weeks, to the moon as part of the Artemis-1 mission, which is a task that modern NASA rockets cannot currently perform. It is supposed to have large acrylic windows for astronauts to watch the journey. It will also have its engine and fuel supply, as well as auxiliary propulsion systems for return to Earth. Future space stations such as the Lunar Gateway will serve as a logistics hub that could include refueling.
The main stage and launch vehicles are unlikely to be reusable (instead of landing, they will fall into the ocean), so the SLS system is more expensive both in terms of materials and in terms of the environment. It is developed to evolve to bigger stages capable of carrying crew or cargo up to 120 tons, possibly more than Starship.
Is Starship better than SLS?
SLS is much more expensive to manufacture, with at least $ 2 billion to be set aside for each launch. On the other hand, Starship is significantly less expensive, has a minimum cost of $ 5 million, and should be fully refurbished and reused.
SLS as an alternative to SpaceX?
So which spacecraft is most likely to take the crew to the moon first? According to updates showing what’s new in technology, Artemis 2 is slated to be the first manned mission using SLS to fly around the moon and is expected to launch in August 2023. While SpaceX doesn’t have a specific crewed launch date, they are launching a lunar space tourism-related project scheduled for 2023. Elon Musk also said that a crewed mission to Mars could happen as early as 2024, also using Starship.
Overall, it is a competition between an agency that has years of testing and experience behind it but limited by erratic taxpayer-dependent cash flows and changes in administrative policies, and a company relatively new to the game that has already launched 109 Falcon rockets. Overall, whoever reaches the moon first will usher in a new era of exploration of a world that continues to be of great scientific value.