SpaceX has big plans for its upcoming Starship rocket, and that means we can look forward to some similarly gargantuan feats of engineering. Founder and CEO Elon Musk has tweeted a video of the tower that will eventually launch and catch Starship vehicles. The tower, known as Mechazilla, lives up to its name.
Today, most of SpaceX’s operations rely on the Falcon 9, a flight-tested rocket that can launch more than 30,000 pounds of cargo to low-Earth orbit, and then land safely for reuse. This capability has made SpaceX into the world’s largest satellite operator in just a few short years as it’s begun deploying its Starlink internet satellites. Launching satellites and resupplying the International Space Station are only the start, though. With Starship, SpaceX could reach the moon, Mars, and even more distant locales. First, it has to be able to take off, and to maintain the low cost of the F9, and then land in one piece afterward. That’s where Mechazilla comes in.
The tower currently soars 400 feet (122 meters) above the landscape of Boca Chica, Texas, where SpaceX is developing the Starship. This vehicle consists of two parts. When you hear talk about Starship, it can mean the interplanetary vessel or the “full stack” launch configuration with Starship and the Super Heavy first stage, which is essential for defeating Earth’s gravity.
Starship launch & catch tower pic.twitter.com/5mLIQwwu0k
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 9, 2022
The Falcon 9’s first-stage booster can just drop onto a drone ship after sending the second-stage on its way, but Starship and Super Heavy will need the Mechazilla tower (which presumably will get a more official name at some point). It has a pair of mechanical arms nicknamed “chopsticks” that will grab a returning rocket and guide it down to the launchpad. We don’t yet know when the tower will be up and running (testing of the chopsticks only started this month), and the same goes for Starship itself. So far, SpaceX has managed a few up-and-down flight tests, but there haven’t been any launches of Super Heavy. SpaceX has stacked the components together, though.
Musk says the tower will be able to launch and catch either a Starship or the Super Heavy first-stage. While there’s just one tower right now (and it’s not even working yet), there could be identical towers in different locations, allowing Starship to launch from one place and land in another. This would support the super-fast transportation concept SpaceX teased some years back, but it also comes with more risk. If a Falcon 9 booster fails to land, it’s probably out to sea where there’s very little to hit. Starship will have to come back to land, and it’s a much bigger vehicle. Any mishaps could result in much more damage. It’ll be interesting to see how SpaceX moves forward with what is essentially science-fiction.