SpaceX is gearing up for a significant milestone in its Starship program as it prepares to roll the spacecraft to the launchpad for its third trial later this year. The focus of this upcoming trial is to test Starship’s capability to transfer super-chilled rocket fuel in space, a crucial step in NASA’s plans for lunar exploration under a $4.2 billion contract with Elon Musk’s rocket company.

The ambitious concept of “cryogenic propellant transfer” will be a first in microgravity, presenting challenges that SpaceX is keen on overcoming to master the refueling process in low-Earth orbit. NASA envisions a collaborative effort involving its own Orion spacecraft and SpaceX’s Starship for the Artemis III and IV moon missions. The intricate plan involves a space relay, where Orion transports the crew to lunar orbit, and Starship completes the final leg, meeting astronauts in space and landing them on the lunar surface.

While the Artemis III mission aims to make history by putting the first woman and person of color on the moon, recent setbacks, including two explosive test flights of Starship, have led to a delay in the mission’s schedule. NASA’s Moon to Mars deputy associate administrator, Amit Kshatriya, acknowledges the challenges SpaceX faces in achieving the propellant transfer and other goals necessary for the Earth departure sequence.

Space fuel stations have captured the interest of NASA and commercial partners as they could enable longer and farther space travel. NASA has invested $370 million in over a dozen U.S. companies, including $53 million for SpaceX, to develop the technology for storing and transferring rocket fuel in space. The ultimate goal is to make extended stays on the moon and distant missions to Mars possible.

The propellant transfer plan involves SpaceX sending tanker versions of Starship into low-Earth orbit to establish a fueling depot. A passenger version of Starship would then dock with the tanker, refuel, and continue the journey to the moon. Blue Origin, SpaceX’s rival, is also planning to rely on orbital refueling for its Artemis V mission.

SpaceX is set to conduct a preliminary test in orbit this February, attempting to transfer 11 tons of liquid oxygen between tanks within Starship. This marks the initial step toward the broader goal of transferring propellant between two separate ships in space. While orbital refueling may seem complex, SpaceX’s vice president, Jessica Jensen, highlights the progress made on operational programs, making the process more achievable.

However, the challenge of coordinating dual launches of Orion and Starship poses a significant hurdle for NASA. Despite uncertainties surrounding the number of launches needed for propellant transport, SpaceX and Elon Musk are determined to revolutionize lunar exploration, with Musk suggesting a range of four to eight launches, contrary to Blue Origin’s estimate of 16 consecutive launches.

By Impact Lab