WASHINGTON — SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk says it will be about a year before the company’s new Starship vehicle will be ready to start launching satellites.
Musk, speaking virtually at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Baku, Azerbaijan, Oct. 5, said he felt that the vehicle would be able to start launching SpaceX’s advanced Starlink satellites even before the company had demonstrated the ability to safely recover both stages of the vehicle.
“There’s a good chance we start deploying Starlink V3 satellites next year, in roughly a year from now,” he said. The company has not previously disclosed a version 3 of its Starlink satellites; it previously said it would launch full-sized V2 satellites on Starship rather than the smaller “V2 mini” satellites currently being launched on Falcon 9.
Those launches, he suggested, could begin before mastering recovery of both the Super Heavy booster and the Starship upper stage, or ship. “The hardest part about this, or the part that will take the longest, is solving for safe ship reentry and landing,” he said. “Before we solve that, we can launch the satellites because, in any case, with Falcon 9 the upper stage is expendable. It’s actually fine to start launching satellites even before we solve for ship reusability.”
Musk offered few new details about Starship itself, which is awaiting regulatory approvals for its second test flight after an inaugural launch in April. He noted that SpaceX has shifted to a passive stage separation system between the booster and ship to eliminate parts, as well as previously announced plans to perform “hot staging” where the ship ignites its engines before separating from the booster.
He reiterated a cautious optimism about the chances of success for that upcoming launch. “I want to set expectations not too high,” he said. “If the engines light and the ship doesn’t blow itself up during stage sep, then I think we’ve got a decent chance of reaching orbit.”
As with the planned profile for the first flight in April, the upcoming flight will not complete a single orbit, with the ship splashing down near Hawaii. That is linked to the gradual approach SpaceX is taking to recovering and eventually reusing the vehicle.
Neither the booster nor the ship will be recovered on the upcoming flight. The booster, he said, could be recovered within the next year, he said, by flying it back to the launch site and catching it with arms extending from the launch tower, a contraption dubbed “Mechazilla.”
Recovering the ship will take longer. “We want to make sure that it comes in fully intact and lands in a precise location in the Pacific before we try to catch it at the launch site,” he said. “Hopefully, we might catch the ship towards the end of next year.”
Musk, though, is known for setting timelines that the company does not meet. Later in the presentation he said that he expected the first Starship mission to Mars to take place in three to four years. At his previous appearance at the IAC in 2017, in Adelaide, Australia, he offered an “aspirational” goal of initial cargo missions to Mars in 2022.