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Elon Musk reveals updated design for future SpaceX Mars rocket

This evening, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave an update on the design of SpaceX’s future massive rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), during an event announcing the first passenger who will fly on the vehicle.

The rocket’s capability has changed. Musk claims that once the rocket is complete, it will be able to take up to 100 tons of payload all the way to Mars. That’s if the rocket gets refueled in orbit by some kind of tanker spacecraft. He also showed off a simulation of how the vehicle will land on the surface of Mars. “I can’t wait,” Musk said at the event. “I’m super fired up about this. This is amazing.”

The BFR is instrumental to SpaceX’s plans of sending humans to the Moon and Mars. In its final form, it will be a gigantic rocket, reaching a height of nearly 387 feet. (That’s about the size of a 40-story building and roughly the same height as NASA’s Saturn V rocket that went to the Moon.) It will also be powered by 31 main Raptor engines, a new SpaceX design that can provide a combined 5,400 tons of thrust.

Overall, the BFR is a combination of a giant rocket booster and a massive cargo spaceship, called the Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS), which can hold up to 100 passengers comfortably. Both pieces are meant to do powered landings, meaning they use their engines to lower down the surface of Earth — or other worlds. It’s akin to how SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 rockets right now. And Musk says the vehicle could go all over the Solar System.

“If you have propellant depot on Mars, you’ll be able to get from Mars to the asteroid belt to the moons of Jupiter and kind of like a planet moon-hop all the way to the outer Solar System,” he said. “BFR is intended as an interplanetary transport system capable of getting from Earth to anywhere in the Solar System.”

Image: SpaceX

Image: SpaceX

Image: SpaceX

Musk unveiled the first concrete details of the BFR’s design back in 2016 at a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress. He then presented an updated design at another IAC meeting the following year, which called for a scaled-down version of the vehicle. Now, it seems that the details of the BFR have changed once again, or at least the BFS portion has transformed somewhat.

The last design iteration of the BFS called for six engines on the ship: two smaller engines that operate best at atmospheric pressures at sea level and four larger ones that operate efficiently in the vacuum of space. However, the new BFS design has seven large Raptor engines instead of the staggered six. There’s also room for cargo on the bottom of the rocket too. Additionally, the new design calls for a third fin at the bottom of the spaceship, instead of the two that were seen in past renderings of the vehicle. Musk said this change is because the spaceship’s three landing legs will extend from the tips of the fins.

Image: SpaceX

Image: SpaceX

Image: SpaceX

SpaceX is currently developing the BFR at the Port of Los Angeles, near the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. The company has shown off a few tests done on key components of the rocket, such as pressure tests on the vehicle’s massive propellant tanks and ignition tests of sub-scale Raptor engines. At today’s event, Musk showed additional photos of completed portions of the vehicle’s cylindrical booster.

Musk said they’ll do numerous test launches of BFR without people on board first. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell believes that the company will be doing short hops of the BFS in late 2019. Those will entail launching the vehicle to a certain altitude and then attempting to land it gently back on Earth. It’s similar to the Grasshopper flights that SpaceX did in 2012 to test out the reusable architecture needed for the Falcon 9. Ultimately, Musk believes the BFR could make its first flight to Mars in 2022, with people flying to the Red Planet as early as 2024. It’s an aspirational goal, given that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy took nearly twice as long to complete than expected.

Ultimately, Musk admitted that these dates may not pan out. “We’re definitely not sure,” he said. “We’ve been pretty unsure about prior dates too. If I had some sort of crystal ball I’d love to know how long something takes.”

Musk noted today that he believes the development of BFR will cost roughly $5 billion, and that SpaceX is contributing less than 5 percent of the company’s overall resources to the project right now. He also maintains that SpaceX should be able to fund the BFR by sending astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station, as well as launching satellites for the Defense Department and commercial customers. SpaceX’s upcoming Starlink satellite internet constellation could help out as well.

And of course, private individuals who want to use the BFR, such as taking artists around the Moon, could be key benefactors. “Private customers or any customers for BFR are incredibly helpful in funding development of the rocket,” said Musk.

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