Elon Musk revealed the update to SpaceX’s highly anticipated and ambitious rocket, the BFR or the Big (FALCON) Rocket. It sports a slimmer and more practical design than what they revealed just last year. They’re planning on the BFR to become their new workhorse, capable of deploying huge satellites, servicing the ISS and even sending humans to the moon and back in order to continue funding their Mars ambitions. Believe it or not, the tooling has begun, and SpaceX says they’ll be ready for Mars by 2022… let’s take a deeper look at SpaceX’s plans and compare this version of the BFR to last years version… lets get started!
Almost exactly one year prior, on September 27th, 2016, Elon Musk took the stage at the International Aeronautical Congress (IAC), in Guadalajara Mexico to show the world just how serious SpaceX’s Mars ambitions are.
The rocket was gargantuan. Standing at 122 meters (or 400 feet tall), the ITS or Interplanetary Transport System as it was then known, was to be the tallest and most powerful rocket ever produced, standing a full 12 meters or 37 feet taller than the famous Saturn V moon rocket. Although the plan was well thought out and fairly technical, there was one giant question mark in the presentation. How do you fund this massive endeavor?
Having given up on Stealing underpants and kickstarter, SpaceX came to this year’s IAC in Adelaide Australia with the answer.
Make a smaller, but still huge rocket that’s capable of servicing greater Earth orbit activity with a new work horse that makes their current Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon Capsule obsolete. Basically they took a rocket that was very good at sending a ton of people to Mars and they made it smaller so it could be used for various applications.
SpaceX currently makes the majority of their money by launching satellites for customers and by resupplying the International Space Station with cargo and soon crew. In a surprise twist, we learned the BFR spaceship will be capable of docking with the ISS.
This kind of reminds me of how Space Shuttle used to dock to the ISS. Awesome!
But the real key to making the BFR cheaper than a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy is of course, reusability. Full reusability. We might get sick of hearing how SpaceX is trying to make using rockets similar to airliners, but that really is the key. Elon drilled this concept in when he mentioned it’d be like buying a small single engine turboprop plane for 1.5 million dollars to get to Australia and throw it away, vs chartering a 747 for 500 thousands dollars. Why would you throw away a small vehicle when reusing a big one makes more sense? The cost of fuel, even for a huge jet, is still much less than building a small plane. That’s exactly the concept at play here. Refueling a huge rocket that’s fully reusable is much more economical over the long run than throwing away, or even partially reusing smaller rockets.
While we’re talking about planes, perhaps the biggest surprise was the serious consideration of using the BFR for point to point transportation on Earth. That’s right, SpaceX envisions being able to go to any destination on Earth in under an hour with most long distance trips taking less than 30 minutes. Woah.
Let’s not forget to mention that they still plan to have no landing legs on the first stage booster… Elon specified that the BFR plans to land back on its launch mounts at the launch pad. Another WOAH
So now we need to talk size, let’s do a side by side comparison of old vs new and of a few other rockets for comparison.
The new BFR stands 106m (347 feet) tall vs the old BFR which stood 122m (400 feet) tall and again, let’s compare that to the Saturn V for reference which stood 110m (363 feet) tall and SpaceX’s soon to fly heavy lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy which is 70m or 229 feet tall.
The next thing we notice is the new BFR appears to have gone on a diet as it now comes in at just 9m (or 29.5 feet) wide which is down from the previous BFR which was 12m (39 feet) wide. The Saturn V’s first and second stages were 10m (33 feet) wide and the Falcon Heavy will have 3 – 3.7m (12 foot) wide cores.
Next let’s talk about the number of engines on the vehicle. The new BFR has 31 raptor engines vs the old BFR’s 42, the Saturn V’s 5 F1 engines, and the Falcon Heavy’s 27 Merlin engines.
How about thrust you say? The new BFR has an impressive 48 mega newtons of thrust at liftoff which is way down compared to the old BFR which claimed 128 mega newtons of thrust. Both are more than the Saturn V which had 35 MNs and the Falcon Heavy which will have 22 MN’s. Notice it appears the Raptor engine got downgraded, producing about half as much thrust as it was claimed to have last year. But the good news is, they’ve test fired the raptor engine 42 times for a total of 1200 seconds with the longest test lasting a full 100 seconds. They’re getting very close to reaching the flight capability of the raptor, and I’m really glad to see they’re moving along aggressively with its development. I suspect they’ll continue to push the raptor engine, just like they keep pushing the merlin engine, and they’ll continue to wow us with improved specs.
Lastly, payload capacity to Low Earth Orbit. The new BFR can put 150 tons into Orbit (while fully reusable), compared the old BFR which could do 300 tons fully reusable. The Saturn V, which was fully expandable could loft 135 tons and the Falcon Heavy which is partially reusable will be capable of 54 tons.
Now onto the upper stage or spaceship portion of BFR. Interestingly the new ship is almost the same height as the old one, standing 48m (157 feet) tall vs 49.5m (162 feet) tall. The new BFR spaceship is 9 meters wide compared to the old one which was 12m but flared all the way out to 17m (55 feet).
The new BFR spaceship will have 4 vacuum optimized raptor engines and 2 sea level engines vs the old BFR spaceship which was to have 6 vacuum engines and 3 sea level engines. One fun change is that all engines on the new BFR spaceship are capable of gimballing or steering, something that only the sea level engines were capable of on the old version.
Another interesting note is how they plan to refuel the spaceship. Elon showed off an impressive in-space butt to butt fueling procedure. Sexy. They can easily transfer fuel between ships by thrusting in one direction to move the fuel from one ship to the other. The cool take away from this is that the ships will connect to the same fuel line that connects the upper stage to the BFR booster on the pad. So it sounds like all the fuel umbilicals will run up the length of the booster and not require a separate umbilical from the tower for the upper stage. Very cool.
Now the elephant in the room, we need to address the delta wings. (ew delta wings, that’s so 80’s) See those stubby little wings on the aft end of the vehicle? Well, they’re actually extremely important for balancing the spaceship throughout reentries for different atmospheres, aka landing on Earth and Mars. They also help provide more surface area to increase the drag and control in the atmosphere. Elon’s always been critical of wings on spaceships since, well, wings in space are useless because there is no air in space… that being said, the laws of physics must ultimately be obeyed, and it looks like the best plan moving forward is Delta wings. SpaceX even calculated that this new design allows them to remove 99% of their Mars intercept energy using the thin Martian atmosphere to slow the vehicle down.
Before you all cry that the BFR is smaller and less capable than what we were expecting, let’s get to the good news. It’s happening. Soon. SpaceX plans to try and send their first BFR’s to Mars in 2022. That’s right… just 5 years from now and just two years later, they hope to send the first people. Now do take into account so-called Elon time or his extreme optimism… but even so you can tell they are serious about pushing this as quickly as possible. This is exactly why they stopped planning to send their Dragon capsule to Mars. Something we talked about in my last video.
So in summary, what did we learn from Elon’s 2017 IAC talk? Well we can tell SpaceX has put even more thought and development into the BFR rocket, and this new iteration is even more refined, focused and practical than before. Now some of you may think this new plan is a cop out from their previous plans, let’s not forget, this will still be the most powerful rocket to fly. Ever. SpaceX is doubling down on reusability in a big way. Having proven they know how to reliably recover the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket, they now have the confidence to move forward with a new generation of rocket that is massive, jack of all trades and most importantly fully reusable.
Lastly, a bit of speculation here…but, with NASA starting to talk about space stations around the moon and with a potential new moon economy booming in the near future, I think Elon will drive SpaceX to follow the money ensuring his vision of Mars is achieved, even if it means “moon first.”
So what do you think? Do you think this new version is more realistic or do you think they’re taking the easy way out? Well, let me tell you now, there’s nothing easy about developing the world’s biggest and most powerful rocket with 31 all new methane powered engines and an entirely carbon fiber structure capable of sending 100 humans to the surface of Mars and back all within a decade… but you’re entitled to your own opinion and I’m sure I’m going to hear all about it.
That being said, remember I live host SpaceX launches starting about 30 minutes before lift off! So come ask questions and join in the conversation live!
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Thanks everybody, that does it for me. I’m Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut. Bringing space down to earth for everyday people.