Elon Musk shares details about SpaceX's Starship, including estimated 20 to 30-year service life

Darrell Etherington

Elon Musk appears to be pretty focused on Starship right now, sharing photos of the work being done on the orbital Starship prototype, designed "SN1," which is currently under construction at SpaceX's Boca Chica, Texas facility. The CEO answered a volley of questions over Twitter on Thursday evening, providing more details about Starship and how it will eventually need to work in order to achieve Musk's goal of making humans an interplanetary species with a colony on Mars.

He has discussed some of this before, but Musk reiterated that Starship will need to operate on a brisk schedule, ferrying many megatons per year of cargo to the Red Planet in order to establish and maintain a human presence there. Musk said that the spacecraft is being designed with the plan of flying it for an average of three flights per day, each carrying over 100 tons per flight, for a total of mor than 1,000 flights per year, per vehicle.

Ultimately, Musk says that he hopes to achieve a construction rate of 100 Starships being produced per year, with a goal of hitting 1,000 in total in service over the course of the next decade, which can transport as much as 100 megatons per year in cargo, or about 100,000 people "per Earth-Mars orbital sync" in terms of human passengers. That translates to a schedule of roughly once every two years, when Earth and Mars are closest to one another because of the coincidence of their respective orbits around the Sun.

Musk clarified in response to another question that the way this will work will be getting the Mars fleet into a staging orbit above Earth, where they can be refueled in space prior to their synchronized departure. Then, once every 26 months approximately 1,000 ships will all depart over the course of 30 days for their Mars transit. While Starship will require an in-orbit refuel to make the trip to Mars leaving from Earth, because of how much boost is needed to exit Earth's atmosphere, the same is not true for the reverse trip, Musk pointed out.

SpaceX's goal, according to Musk, is to ultimately send one million people to Mars by 2050, something Musk also confirmed in another reply to a Twitter user. The goal is to make it common enough and affordable enough that "anyone can go if they want, with loans available for those who don't have money." Plus, Musk also noted that there "will be lots of jobs on Mars" for potential colonists.

As Musk has emphasized at every step of SpaceX's development, reusability in the Starship system is key. Each Starship will have a target useful life of around 20 to 30 years -- similar to commercial aircraft today, he noted. That's required if the company hopes to be able to operate at the scale described above, while doing so in a way that's anywhere near economically viable.

Starship is currently in development, with a new prototype under construction at its Texas facility. The company already built a sub-scale demonstrator without a nose cone to test the new engines it's working on for Starship, and demonstrated those working successfully for controlled low-altitude flight. It built a larger prototype that it originally said would be used for high-altitude testing, but that one failed during an early pressure test and now it has moved on to a third version with a refined and improved design, which the company says will be used for orbital flight testing this year.