SpaceX’s massive Starship vehicle, meant to provide a way for astronauts to visit the Moon and Mars, is preparing to launch for the first time. If successful, the flight will make Starship the most powerful rocket ever to leave Earth’s surface. No people will be on board for the first full test, which was scheduled for 17 April but has been delayed for at least 48 hours because of a frozen pressure valve.
Scientists say that as well as ferrying astronauts into deep space, Starship could enable new types of astrophysics and planetary science — because it can launch scientific payloads, such as telescopes and interplanetary spacecraft that are heavier than other space vehicles can manage.
Scientific missions using Starship could include robotic spacecraft to map ice beneath the Martian surface as a resource for future explorers, or instruments that are designed to search for signs of life on Mars, says Jennifer Heldmann, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “We could do those quickly and take advantage of Starship’s capabilities,” she says.
Starship could also pull off endeavours such as bringing rocks back from Mars, which NASA and the European Space Agency are currently planning to do with several spacecraft in a complex system over many years. “Starship could enable you to do that in one go,” says Tanya Harrison, a planetary scientist at the Outer Space Institute who is based in Seattle, Washington. “It’s really a whole new way of being able to think about the possibilities of what you could do on Mars.”
Read more: Mega rocket Starship could enable new types of astrophysics by Alexandra Witza