Elon Musk's rocket company, SpaceX, appears to be hard at work constructing the Big Falcon Rocket out of woven carbon-fiber.
- Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, revealed a photo on instagram of a giant tool that will help build "Big Falcon Rocket" spaceships.
- The tool is a huge mold to create a carbon-fiber composite body for the spaceships, which could enable travel to Mars.
- Carbon-fiber is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum, making it an excellent aerospace building material.
- SpaceX's first spaceships could launch by the end of 2018 and rocket toward Mars in 2022.
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, just showed off a huge development in his quest to build the largest and most powerful spaceship in history.
Musk posted a photo of a giant cylinder (below) to Instagram early Monday morning. It reveals a hollow metal spindle with spokes next to a Tesla Model 3 electric car.
"SpaceX main body tool for the BFR interplanetary spaceship," Musk said in his post.
The "BFR" abbreviation stands for Big Falcon Rocket — or, as Musk prefers, Big F---ing Rocket. SpaceX is designing the launch system with two fully-reusable parts: a 191-foot-tall rocket booster and a 157-foot-tall spaceship, which sits on top.
Once assembled, a BFR would stand about 15% taller than the Statue of Liberty and be able to launch 100 people and 150 tons of cargo into orbit around Earth. After a refueling in space, a ship could reach Mars in about 6 months.
Musk said in February that most of SpaceX's engineering resources are now focused on BFR — and the spaceship in particular.
"The ship part is by far the hardest," he said. "I think we understand reusable boosters. Reusable spaceships that can land propulsively? That's harder. We're starting with the hard part first."
What Musk's new photo reveals
Musk's image is small and grainy, and SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for more details; yet the image nonetheless reveals quite a bit.
A Tesla Model 3 is about 15.5 feet long, which means the tool next to it is about 30 feet in diameter and 40 feet long. The internal supports and central spindle also hint that the whole thing can rotate.
The dimensions match Musk's latest description of the BFR spaceship. Likewise, the spinning backs up SpaceX's plan to build the spaceship almost entirely out of carbon-fiber: a super-lightweight, ultra-strong material.
Carbon-fiber materials are many times stronger than steel and about 50% lighter than aluminum (a metal commonly used by aerospace companies).
This is why many rocket manufacturers now weave carbon-fiber thread into fuel tanks and other parts. If a rocket's weight can be reduced, heavier payloads can reach space; for larger vessels, this can translate to thousands of pounds of cargo. Safety is also improved, since carbon-fiber holds up better against the punishing forces of launch.
The company uses some of the material in its Falcon Heavy rocket system, for example. And in October 2017, Musk revealed a nearly 40-foot-wide cryogenic fuel tank made out of the stuff.
"We developed a new carbon-fiber matrix that's much stronger and more capable at cryo than anything before, and it holds 1,200 tons of liquid oxygen," he said at the time.
According to Teslarati, a contractor called Janicki Industries helped SpaceX build the giant fuel tank — but this time Musk's company is bringing the work in-house.
How the carbon-fiber spaceship tool might work
Carbon-fiber thread on its own isn't of too much use to aerospace engineers. But when the material is woven, impregnated with glues, and cured with heat, it takes on otherworldly properties.
The most precise way to create it is with robots.
A time-lapse video below shows a robot weaving a carbon-fiber filament around a spinning tank in a diamond pattern. Afterward, it winds a coating of adhesives around the tank, and then workers cure the whole thing in an oven to create the final carbon-fiber composite material.
The process shown above is more of a bench-top operation. What SpaceX is trying to do will likely break records — and require a lot more space.
With no room in its Hawthorne, California headquarters, SpaceX is looking to build a 250,000-square-foot Mars rocket factory at an 18-acre site located in the Port of Los Angeles (pending final approval from the city).
For now, as Musk's photo shows, the tool is being kept in a tent — most likely the 20,000-square-foot tent that SpaceX recently put up at a nearby site at the port, according to Ars Technica and Teslarati.
Eventually, SpaceX will need some very large robots decked out with weaving, adhesives, and heat-curing tools.
To get a sense of how SpaceX's super-size carbon-fiber molding operation might work, below is a clip of how a robot at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 2014 worked on a fuel tank that stretched 18 feet in diameter:
The first SpaceX moon or Mars mission could happen sooner than you think
Once a BFR spaceship body is formed into a leak-proof shell, it will likely be removed from its mold.
Other carbon-fiber composite parts, such as a flight-stabilizing delta wing and the cone-shaped payload (and passenger) area, can then be mated to it to form the spaceship's hull.
SpaceX engineers will then have to attach four room-size Raptor rocket engines and two other engines, plus all of the other internal propellant tanks, plumbing, and electronics that a rocket requires.
The first enormous BFR spaceship — about 35 feet longer than NASA's space shuttle orbiters — could be built, shipped to SpaceX's testing facility in McGregor, Texas, and start "short hopper flights" by early 2019, Musk said in February.
Assuming the spaceship doesn't blow up during its testing, SpaceX will move on to the BFR booster.
Musk said late last year that his "aspirational" timeline for a first BFR launch to Mars will happen 2022, followed by the first crewed mission in 2024.
He hopes to eventually colonize Mars with BFR spaceships as a backup plan for humanity.
"It will start off building just the most elementary infrastructure, just a base to create some propellant, a power station, blast domes in which to grow crops — all of the sort of fundamentals without which you cannot survive," he said at the South by Southwest festival in March. "And then really there's gonna be an explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity, because Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints. I think Mars should really have great bars: the Mars Bar."