Slashdot reader sciencehabit shared this thought-provoking anecdote from Science magazine:
NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission was brutish and short. It began on 9 October 2009, when the hull of a spent Centaur rocket stage smashed into Cabeus crater, near the south pole of the Moon, with the force of about 2 tons of TNT. And it ended minutes later, when a trailing spacecraft flew through and analyzed the lofted plume of debris before it, too, crashed. About 6% of the plume was water, presumably from ice trapped in the shadowed depths of the crater, where the temperature never rises above -173ÂC. The Moon, it turned out, wasn't as bone dry as the Apollo astronauts believed. "That was our first ground truth that there is water ice," says Jennifer Heldmann, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center who worked on the mission.
Today, Heldmann wants to send another rocket to probe lunar ice — but not on a one-way trip. She has her eye on Starship, a behemoth under development by private rocket company SpaceX that would be the largest flying object the world has ever seen. With Starship, Heldmann could send 100 tons to the Moon, more than twice the lunar payload of the Saturn V, the workhorse of the Apollo missions. She dreams of delivering robotic excavators and drills and retrieving ice in freezers onboard Starship, which could return to Earth with tens of tons of cargo. By analyzing characteristics such as the ice's isotopic composition and its depth, she could learn about its origin: how much of it came from a bombardment of comets and asteroids billions of years ago versus slow, steady implantation by the solar wind. She could also find out where the ice is abundant and pure enough to support human outposts. "It's high-priority science, and it's also critical for exploration," Heldmann says.
When SpaceX CEO Elon Musk talks up Starship, it's mostly about human exploration: Set up bases on Mars and make humans a multiplanetary species! Save civilization from extinction! But Heldmann and many others believe the heavy lifter could also radically change the way space scientists work. They could fly bigger and heavier instruments more often — and much more cheaply, if SpaceX's projections of cargo launch costs as low as $10 per kilogram are to be believed. On Mars, they could deploy rovers not as one-offs, but in herds. Space telescopes could grow, and fleets of satellites in low-Earth orbit could become commonplace. Astronomy, planetary science, and Earth observation could all boldly go, better than they ever have before.
Of course, Starship isn't real yet. All eyes will be on a first orbital launch test, expected sometime in the coming months.
Starship would've made it easier to deploy the massive James Webb Space Telescope, the article points out, while in the future Starship's extra fuel capacity could make it easier to explore Mercury, earth's outermost planets, and even interstellar space. In fact, Heldmann and colleagues have now suggested that NASA create a dedicated funding line for missions relying on Starship. Heldmann argues that "We on the science side need to be ready to take advantage of those capabilities when they come online."
The article notes that at an event in February, Elon Musk "explained how a single Starship, launching three times per week, would loft more than 15,000 tons to orbit in a year — about as much as all the cargo that has been lifted in the entire history of spaceflight."
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