SpaceX BFR, Credit: YouTube
Elon Musk has unveiled SpaceX’s massive next generation launch vehicle: the fully reusable Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). The BFR is a multi-purpose launch vehicle capable of manned missions to the Moon and Mars along with SpaceX’s traditional bread and butter business of satellite launches. Additionally, Musk teased the idea of the BFR conducting long-haul passenger flights on Earth.
The BFR is a two stage launch platform consisting of a first stage booster and a fully integrated spacecraft and second stage power source.The first stage is powered by 32 Raptor engines--SpaceX’s next generation methane-liquid oxygen power source--while the second stage features six Raptor engines, with two of the six engines optimized for sea level landings on Earth. The BFR, which replaces SpaceX’s previously announced Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), is smaller in diameter than the ITS.
Musk said in remarks at the 68th International Astronautic Congress that the BFR was a result of a “realization that if we can build a system that cannibalizes our own products, makes our own products redundant, then all of the resources, which are quite enormous, that are used for Falcon 9, Heavy, and Dragon, can be applied to one system.”
The BFR and SpaceX’s core business
While the BFR is still lacking in many details and a solid timeframe, one thing is for certain: the BFR is intended to replace the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy while expanding SpaceX’s reach into the solar system. The BFR is a massive rocket with a maximum payload to low earth orbit (LEO) of 150 tons. For comparison, the most powerful rocket currently in operation, the Delta IV Heavy, can carry a maximum payload of roughly 32 tons to LEO.
In his presentation to the IAC, Musk stressed the various capabilities of the BFR in SpaceX’s core money making operation: the commercial and government satellite launch market, which enables SpaceX to pursue its multi-planetary ambitions.
Addressing government and commercial customers, Musk said that the BFR will be able to launch massive constellations of satellites.The BFR will also be able to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) continuing SpaceX’s legacy as one of the prime commercial suppliers of the ISS. However, due to the uncertain future of the ISS being operational after 2028, it will likely play an insignificant role in SpaceX’s future revenue generation.
Musk also noted that SpaceX will keep a certain number of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets available for conservative customers who still want to launch on the old platform.
There are serious questions over the business proposition of the BFR and its potential effect on the commercial satellite market, which Taranis Aviation will explore in a future analysis.
The Journey to Mars
The driving force behind the development of the BFR is Musk’s desire to convert humanity into a multi-planetary species. Musk emphasized the BFR’s deep-space capabilities for Lunar and Mars missions.
Musk intends on building a colony on Mars by sending multiple all-cargo outfitted BFR’s carrying 150 tons of key building materials and supplies to the Red Planet in advance of the first humans. Orbital refuelling is a key capability of the BFR and Musk’s plan to build a colony on Mars as it allows SpaceX to launch a full payload of 150 tons to Mars. The BFR carrying the cargo or humans to Mars will be refuelled in orbit by a tanker BFR, before being sent on its way to Mars. The passenger version of the BFR will be able to carry up to 100 passengers in 40 cabins.
While Musk’s ultimate vision is to build a city on Mars, he has also entertained the possibility of the BFR conducting a Lunar mission, an idea in-line with the Trump Administration’s interest in a moon expedition. In fact, the BFR will be capable of conducting a mission to the surface of the moon and returning to Earth on a single tank of propellant.
SpaceX as an airline?
Another BFR capability Musk touched on was the possibility of suborbital long-haul passenger flights. The idea was brought up at the end of the address and Musk was characteristically light on details, especially for a system that comes with many regulatory, safety, business feasibility, cost efficiency, and passenger experience questions.
Musk highlighted the possibility of flying between any two destinations around the world under an hour with the BFR. The BFR could achieve such quick flight times due to the frictionless vacuum of space
In a video released by SpaceX, a passenger BFR launches from a platform on the Hudson River with the New York City skyline in the background. After exiting the earth’s atmosphere and first stage separation, the BFR travels over the north pole before re entering and completing a vertical landing on a platform in the Yellow Sea next to downtown Shanghai. Total flight time: 39 minutes.
Taranis Aviation will have more on the feasibility of sub-orbital rocket travel and the potential impact on the airline industry in a future analysis.
BFR development timeline
Save for Musk’s ambitious goal of landing a cargo mission on Mars in 2022 and putting the first humans on the Red Planet in 2024, there is very little information on the BFR’s development timeline.
The construction of the first BFR should begin by the end of 2018, according to Musk. Additionally, Musk said that much of the infrastructure for the development of the BFR is already complete.
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