Elon Musk and the Future of Deep Space Research

Elon Musk shares his thoughts on the future of researching outer planets and deep space using Starship and Starlink.

Elon Musk has shared some interesting thoughts on the future of researching outer planets and deep space. 

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Commenting on a Twitter post by Discover Magazine, SpaceX CEO revealed his fascinating thoughts of how the technologies being developed at SpaceX could be altered in a way that enables them to scrutinize very distant objects.

Ultima Thule

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is sending back data and imagery of Ultima Thule, the farthest object we can see from up close. It is comprised of two loosely connected large rocks. 

There are no moons orbiting around it, neither has it rings. We also know that it is very dark red, and thanks to New Horizons’ cutting edge sensors, it is clear that some parts of Ultima Thule are redder than others.

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Scientists presume that it can be caused by tholins. ‘Broadly speaking thorns are complex carbon chains made when ultra-violet light strikes carbon-rich molecules like methane or ethane. The result is a reddish, tarry substance.’

Carl Sagan named the compound when he was conducting research in his lab at Cornell to answer how life on Earth came to be (amongst other things).

New and Newer Horizons

NASA's New Horizons
Source: NASA

So how could SpaceX carry out missions like the one mentioned by Mr. Musk? Given the technology SpaceX has been developing for the Mars journeys, space enthusiasts, just like us, are already co-designing the endeavor with CEO Musk. 

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Of course, the first problem they have to face is the incredible travel distance. Outer planets (the ones orbiting beyond the main asteroid belt) are very far, the closest one of them is 400 million miles away. Not to mention Ultima Thule, the most distant object our spacecrafts have ever studied, is residing more than a mind-blowing four billion miles from Earth’s orbit.

Keep in mind that New Horizons launched in 2006, thus, we are speaking about years and years of traveling. But this time could be reduced if Musk and his company apply some modifications on the BFR system, which is possibly powerful enough to significantly shrink the flight time. 

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Musk’s proposal to use Starlink satellites in future deep-space investigations raises another question beyond transporting them there. And this is the energy supply of the units.

Starlink satellites are powered by solar panels which is a highly efficient solution for orbiting around Earth but gets extremely difficult when moving away from Earth. In order to produce the 300 Watts New Horizons needs to operate, each Starlink would need an extreme, 15K square feet solar panel. This is why New Horizons is powered by a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), a very expensive device used mostly for long space missions.

We don’t know much facts about SpaceX’s plans for extending their portfolio into the realm of deep space research, but one thing is sure: Elon Musk is not only a businessman, but also a visionary, and if something gets his attention, he is going for it.

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Imagine a future where space travel for civilians can also be a scientific venture which provides data for space agencies and a new world of entertainment for travelers.