The Moon, Mars, & around the Earth – Musk updates BFR architecture, plans

by Chris Gebhardt

Speaking at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Elon Musk has laid out a much anticipated update to SpaceX’s Mars colonization plan – including a slightly scaled back version of the BFR vehicle introduced last year.  Included in this update, excitingly, was the announcement of the company’s aim to establish a human base on the moon and use the BFR for Earth-based transport – taking people anywhere on the planet in less than an hour.

SpaceX – a juggernaut that proves the “impossible” possible:

From the beginning of SpaceX’s conception, Elon Musk has been on a mission to change the paradigm of the rocket business.

Employing a multi-faceted approach revolving around the reduction of costs involved with launching rockets and the frequency at which those launches occur, SpaceX – especially in the last year – has become a true force to be reckoned with in the space industry.

Since June 2016, every single Falcon 9 first stage that has attempted landing has succeeded – some from incredibly “hot entry” profiles that required last-second three-engine hover slam landings onto the ASDS (Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship) and that prompted caution from Musk that their landings might not succeed.

Historically, the company has made good on its word to re-fly recovered Falcon 9 first stages – with SES-10 and Bulgariasat-1 having demonstrated flight-proven Falcon 9 missions and next month’s SES-11/Echostar 105 flight aiming to be the third such mission to use a flight-proven Falcon 9.

So successful have the reflights been, NASA is now in negotiations with SpaceX on the potential use of flight-proven Falcon 9s for CRS Dragon resupply missions of the International Space Station.

Moreover, the company has perfectly executed two classified missions for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and Air Force (one each), with Falcon 9 receiving a contract to launch the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane that had previously only launched on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

This year alone, SpaceX has also demonstrated an incredible ability to safely execute multiple missions in a very short period of time.

Between 23 June and 5 July SpaceX launched an impressive three missions in 12 days – which would have been 9 or 10 days for all three missions had a repeating ground computer issue not scrubbed the Intelsat 35e launch attempts on 2 and 3 July, respectively.

Regardless, the fact that the Falcon 9s and teams were ready for three missions in 9 days is a true testament to SpaceX’s power and ability.

Moreover, with 7 launches left to go this year (not including the still-planned debut of the Falcon Heavy), SpaceX is on track to hit 20 total launches in 2017 – a number which will account for roughly one-quarter (or 25%) of the total worldwide orbital launch market this year.

While SpaceX has not been immune to the inherent risks of the launch business, its groundbreaking achievements have continued to push the company into the hall of fame of space flight rock stars.

Nonetheless, through this all has been a singular goal: to make humanity a multi-planet species.

Through his update today on BFR architecture, Musk provided a timeline for BFR’s introduction, how it fits into SpaceX’s overall plans and their current vehicles, and how the craft can be used to construct a lunar base and be used for travel to anyplace on Earth in under an hour.

BFR – slightly smaller model for better efficiency:

At the time of its announcement last year, BFR (Big F-word Rocket) was a Super Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle with a 12 meter booster diameter, a 17 meter spaceship diameter, and a 122 meter stack height powered by 42 (a good number for any science fiction fan) Raptor engines.

Recent activity at the Raptor test stand at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, facility has shown a continued progression of a robust test program for the engines – with information acquired by and available in L2 noting that the latest Raptor tests were completed in early September ahead of a new series of test scheduled to begin “soon.”

Under the original BFR design, 42 Raptor engines powered the booster stage, with another nine Raptors on a second stage (the BFR spacecraft that would carry people or propellant… or both).

With his presentation today, Mr. Musk confirmed a smaller, slightly scaled-down version of BFR ( previously reported on the potential of a sub-scale BFR) – one that will not only be able to execute SpaceX’s vision for Mars colonization but also able to perform “greater Earth orbit activity,” stated Mr. Musk.

Importantly, a large part of the announcement today focused not just on the technical specifications for the new model BFR but also on how to pay for it.

In a move that would have seemed crazy a few years ago, Mr. Musk stated that the goal of BFR is to make the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy rockets and their crew/uncrewed Dragon spacecrafts redundant, thereby allowing the company to shift all resources and funding allocations from those vehicles to BFR.

Making the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon redundant would also allow BFR to perform the same Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Beyond LEO satellite deployment missions as Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy – just on a more economical scale as multiple satellites would be able to launch at the same time and on the same rocket thanks to BFR’s immense size.

The new BFR would also be able to perform crew rotation missions to the International Space Station – with Mr. Musk noting that while the BFR’s size compared to the ISS looks somewhat humorous, “Shuttle was [also] big.  It’ll work.”

In basic terms, the new BFR model stands 106 meters tall, is 9 meters in diameter and uses 31 Raptor engines on the booster stage and six Raptors on the ship (cargo or human segment) for a total ability to lift a 4,400 ton vehicle to LEO in its fully reusable configuration.

During the course of the presentation, a cargo version of BFR was also confirmed, one that would have the ability to launch large telescopes (with mirrors three times the size of Hubble’s) and satellites into orbit or also conduct orbit cleaning operations of defunct satellites – according to Mr. Musk.

This new version of BFR also – and quite importantly – allows the architecture to fit quite nicely within the existing capabilities of LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center – where it’s likely to take its inaugural launch.

In fact, a 9 meter diameter BFR vehicle could share LC-39A with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets – with a L2 Envisioning process with pad engineers and experts evaluating a second, larger, Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) outside the pad perimeter, allowing the new BFR to roll to an additional mount along the same trench at 39A.

Moon Base Alpha:

An element that was lacking in BFR’s mission when first introduced last year was lunar exploration.

The Moon now appears to be squarely in SpaceX’s and BFR’s sights, with Mr. Musk using a portion of the presentation to outline lunar surface missions for the rocket and transport system.

BFR lunar missions would involve the launch of the vehicle and its refueling while in an elliptical orbit of Earth.

BFR would then use its Raptor engines to perform a Trans-Lunar Injection burn, travel to the moon, and land on its surface to conduct in-situ operations – some of which would involve the potential creation of a lunar outpost, which Mr. Musk dubbed Moon Base Alpha.

For these types of lunar sortie missions, the BFR would not have to create propellant from resources present on the moon.

The vehicle would carry enough liquid methane and liquid oxygen in its tanks to travel to the Moon, land on it, and return back to Earth.

To the BFR’s role in the creation of a lunar outpost, Mr. Musk commented: “It’s 2017.  We should have a lunar base by now.  What’s going on?”

Mars colonization:

While the BFR itself has been scaled back, the number of occupants it is designed to carry to Mars has not changed, with Mr. Musk noting that 100 people will be able to travel on each ship to Mars.

Moreover, the basic architecture of the Mars colonization plan has not changed in any meaningful way – with the plan still being to build in-situ propellant depots to mine carbon dioxide and oxygen from Mars’s atmosphere to produce the cryogenic methane and oxygen the BFR will need to return to Earth.

Somewhat more concrete this year is exactly how much payload BFR is capable of returning to Earth from Mars, with that figure landing in the 20 to 50 ton range.

Importantly, Musk also touched on the BFR’s propulsive landing ability – specifically that it will have redundancy.

Under a normal flight, the BFR will land on Mars under the retro-propulsive thrust of two Raptor engines – though BFR will have the ability to land under the power of just one Raptor should a single Raptor engine failure occur.

With this, Mr. Musk stated that the goal is to make a BFR landing just as safe as a commercial airliner landing.

For this, Mr. Musk pointed to the 16 straight consecutive successful landings of Falcon 9 first stages both on ASDSs in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and back at Landing Zone 1 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Falcon 9 landings and recoveries are all part of SpaceX’s process of learning how to conduct and perfect the technology for precision propulsive landings, something that will be quite important for BFR – which is still envisioned to return to land on its launch mount (one of those mounts being LC-39A) for rapid refueling and reflight.

But most importantly came a timeline that, while aspirational – something even Mr. Musk noted – is encouraging.

Currently, SpaceX will begin full-scale construction of the first BFRs in the second quarter of 2018, with the aim to launch the first two BFR missions in the 2022 interplanetary alignment and launch window to Mars.

Those first two BFR missions will be scouting missions of sorts to “confirm water resources and identify hazards and place power, mining, and life support infrastructure for future flights” on the surface.

Those two missions will then be followed by four BFR missions in 2024 to the red planet.

Excitingly, two of those missions will be crew missions taking the first people to Mars, while the other two will be cargo ships bringing more equipment and supplies.

The goal of the 2024 missions will be to “set up propellant production plant and build up a base to prepare for expansion” — the ultimate goal being to create an entire city on Mars and then eventually terraform the planet.

As a particular note, these timelines are extremely aspirational and are likely to slip given development delays and the fact that the Earth-Mars interplanetary launch window is only open for a few weeks every two years.

However, that does not in any way eliminate the excitement or the importance that we could, in 2017, be 10 years or less away from putting human beings on the surface of another planet – something which has always been “a few decades away”… until now.

Earth-based travel:

But perhaps the most unexpected element of the presentation was Mr. Musk’s announcement that BFR has Earth-based uses as well.

As he stated, “If you build a ship that’s capable of going to Mars, what if you take that same ship and go from one place to another on Earth.

Mr. Musk presented a video demonstrating BFR’s capability to fly from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes, with the SpaceX CEO stating that most long-distance trips around Earth would only take 30 minutes with BFR and that you could travel anywhere on the surface of Earth in under an hour.

Importantly, this is a notional idea, and one that Mr. Musk states is where precision landing becomes extremely important.

While just an idea now, SpaceX has ways of taking ideas and science fiction and making them science reality.

Regardless, the updates to the BFR architecture largely explored a robust system capable of fulfilling multiple roles in Humanity’s exploration of Earth, the Moon and Mars – with an eventual push farther out into the solar system.

At its core, BFR is a step toward fulfilling a goal Elon Musk has had for quite a long time – making the human race a multi-planetary species.

While that drive to exist in foreign and hostile places is one that Humanity has had since its beginning, one that has allowed us to spread to every corner of the Earth, that same drive is now key to our ability to live on other worlds.

This ability not only speaks to the human desire for exploration of the unknown and an ever-expanding final frontier, but also serves more logically as a way to protect our species.

After all, space is harsh, and as Earth’s geologic record shows, asteroid impacts and mass extinctions occur with some frequency.

It would be nice to have a Planet B.

(Images: SpaceX and L2 SpaceX (Subscale BFR on 39A via Jay Deshetler, in addition to Cameron Byers and John Archer, based on notes from KSC pad engineers))

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