Can Musk make a faster, cheaper, more eco-friendly alternative to the aeroplane?Elon Musk tends to revolutionise industries; just look at PayPal, Tesl
Elon Musk tends to revolutionise industries; just look at PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX. Is he poised to do the same thing with the aviation industry? And are his plans to send us to Mars just a marketing trick to kick start this Earthbound take over?
In 2019 the global Aviation industry produced 915 million tonnes of carbon dioxide which accounts for roughly 2% of the global human carbon emissions. This is a vast portion of our collective footprint. To make matters worse, jet technology is struggling to adapt to green alternatives. The scene is set for a new technology to dominate.
Enter Elon Musk! He has already kick-started the electric revolution in cars. Could he do the same to aeroplanes? Sadly, you won’t be seeing a Tesla plane any time soon, the batteries are still way too heavy! But Elon has a trick up his sleeve. In fact, he has two tricks, and they won’t revolutionise aviation, they will utterly crush it instead. This is Elon Musk’s plan to make polluting, slow and tedious aeroplanes useless.
His first trick? Rockets! Big ones.
Starship is the craft that can take us to Mars, and that is what the hype is all about. With a load capacity to Mars of 100+ tonnes, you would only need a few of them to get a small Mars base operational. But, how is Musk going to afford the development of such a craft?
By using it to out-compete long haul flights and, in doing so, make a killing off the intercontinental travel industry on Earth! Let me explain.
Any rocket worth its fuel has to get its payload into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Now LEO is just outside of the atmosphere, and to maintain such a tight orbit, you need to be going fast! The ISS is in LEO, and it travels at around 7.66 km/s or 17,135 mph! You can travel from New York to Sydney (9,929 mi) in under 40 minutes at that speed. In comparison, it takes an aeroplane around a day with a stop off to make the same journey.
So if Starship can land consistently in any weather without exploding (here’s hoping that happens soon!), then in theory, it could take off from New York, enter LEO for a while, then re-enter over Australia within the hour! So no inflight movie on Starship, maybe just one sitcom episode. Oh, and that terrible flight food? It is now floating away from you in microgravity!
So, Starship can outrun any plane on the planet! But what about being eco-friendly? And wouldn’t this service cost an arm and a leg?
Well, even though a Starship launch burns up to 4,600 tonnes of propellant on launch, it can be surprisingly efficient and eco-friendly. This is because Starship and its booster rocket (Super-Heavy) run on methane. That’s right, Musks pride and joy is a gigantic fart rocket…
But believe it or not, methane burns exceptionally cleanly, producing minimal byproducts. Let’s compare it to NASA’s SLS rocket, a hydrogen and solid rocket booster design with a significantly lower payload at less than 70% that of Starship.
One SLS launch produces roughly 538 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 5.1 tonnes of soot, 8.5 tonnes of NOx, 302 tonnes of inorganic chlorine (basically tear gas) and423 tonnes of alumina (the same thing that makes antiperspirants work, it also destroys Ozone and hangs about for up to 4 years in the stratosphere). This is a lot of different chemicals, all pretty nasty to the atmosphere.
In comparison, Starship produces 2683 tonnes of carbon dioxide and 1.7 tonnes of NOx, and apart from some water vapour, that is it, no toxic tear gas or anything! Starship does produce 60% more carbon per kilo of payload than SLS, but this isn’t a surprise.
When rockets get bigger, their fuel usage tends to skyrocket (pun intended). This is because they need more thrust to shift the heavier weight, which means more fuel to power bigger engines, which means it weighs more, which means it needs more thrust, more fuel, etc. So the fact that Starship is carrying over 42% more and only produces 60% more carbon per kilo is incredible! The surprisingly low amount of NOx (a group of gases that deplete Ozone) is because methane burns at a relatively low temperature. All in all, Starship is one of the cleanest burning rockets out there!
But to give some perspective, my 2009 VW Golf S 1.4 has done 80,000 miles and has only produced 102 tonnes of carbon dioxide over that distance (at least according to VW…). That means a Starship flight produces as much carbon dioxide as me driving for 2,104,313.7 miles. So calling the Starship ‘eco-friendly’ seems like a stretch. But that depends on where you get that methane from.
If Elon wants to make Starship carbon-neutral, it is actually really easy! Methane is abundantly produced by organisms on Earth (not just humans who have had too many baked beans). Most anaerobic bacteria sucks up carbon dioxide and uses it for their chemical reactions, and in doing so, produce methane, this is known as methanogenesis. This is where your fart methane comes from, the anaerobic bacteria in your gut! But, because the carbon dioxide used by these organisms is pulled out of the atmosphere, it means that the methane gathered from these biological sources is carbon neutral!
What makes methane such a good choice for carbon-neutral fuel, is that you don’t need a vast and complex bio/synthetic fuel factory (like you do to make bio jet-fuel), just syphon the gas coming out of the sewers, cow slurry or food-waste processing plants, and you have rocket fuel! Less infrastructure, less pollution and more accessible and easy to produce carbon-neutral rocket fuel.
So next time you fart, you can loudly proclaim that you are producing rocket fuel that can take us to Mars! Having said that, I should do an article on how many farts it would take to get us to Mars…
So, Starship’s carbon dioxide can be neutralised way easier than any jet or propeller plane. You can even go one step further as recent advances make NOx capture viable, and as each launch produces such a small amount, you can easily offset this pollution too. It’s almost as though Musk designed Starship as an ecologically neutral rocket…
Now, what about price? Such a colossal rocket must cost an awful lot, right? Well, SpaceX hasn’t said how much a ticket would cost, but we can get a reasonable estimate with some of their released figures and some rough analogues.
Musk has said that he wants each launch to cost $2 million. So our ticket price for every passenger has to come to that figure. He has also stated that the payload will be way over 100 tonnes for Low Earth Orbit, but we know that it can take at least 100 tonnes so let’s use that figure. From this, we get a price per kilo of $20. Remarkably cheaper than any rocket today (SLS costs >$6,000 per kilo).
Now, we can’t just shove 100 tonnes worth of people onboard and call it a day. So let’s use a Boeing 747 as an analogue for the safety and comfort bits needed. A 747 has a passenger capacity of 366 and a payload weight of 112.7 tonnes. This means each passenger takes up around 308 kg for them, their seat, their baggage and inflight comforts.
Using the 747 as a rough guide, we can guess that Starship can take at least 325 passengers at the cost of $2 million, or, $6,153 per passenger. This is comparable to today’s middle of the road long-haul flights. Only it will take 40 minutes, not a whole day. For example, at the time of writing, a one-way trip from New York to Sydney on Singapore Airlines costs $10,969.89 and takes over 34 hours!
Now, these aren’t the cheapest tickets, and plane tickets are still expensive due to Covid19. But, it wasn’t unheard of for 1st class tickets on the same journey costing upwards of $20,000 before Covid. SpaceX can offer you a journey time 30 times shorter, and experience zero gravity, for less than half the price of 1st class and comparable to a high priced economy.
It is easy to see Musk charging way over $50,000 per ticket and still selling out regular flights worldwide. You do go into space after all! At that price, he would make over $14,250,275 per launch! This is how Elon can develop a rocket that can take us to Mars, because it can also make a tonne of money back on Earth.
I haven’t even got onto how Elon will use old oil rigs as moveable landing and takeoff platforms for Starship either. That’s for another day.
So, Starship is cheaper, faster and way more eco-friendly than anyone currently in the aviation business. Long-haul planes may soon be a thing of the past. But, what about short-haul?
Well, rather than reaching for the stars, this time, he is looking beneath our feet. You may have already guessed that this is where Hyperloop and The Boring Company come into play.
Unlike SpaceX, we don’t have any prices or payloads yet, so I can’t do any fun analysis. But when you look at the engineering of the Hyperloop the telltale signs that it will be faster, cheaper and more eco friendly are there too.
Hyperloop is effectively just a really fancy train running through a vacuum tube. The idea is you bore a tunnel between your chosen destinations (say LA and San Fransisco) and then suck all the air out of it. Then you send a pressurised train (you want the occupants to be able to breath) down the tube with little to no air resistance, making it not just fast but very efficient.
In theory, a system like this could go up to 760 mph (190 mph faster than a Boeing 747) and be fully powered by renewables. Even better, Musk has suggested he can do a car-carry system where you drive your EV into the train, zip to your destination and then drive out at the other end.
LA to San Fransisco is the proposed first Hyperloop route. A journey of around 375 miles. Via aeroplane, this takes approximately one and a half hours, with hyperloop it should only take about half an hour!
Now, Hyperloop is nowhere near as developed as Starship. But Musk has teamed up with his billionaire pal Richard Branson to develop it into a functional prototype and then a commercial operation. Interesting how Branson, a man who has a considerable stake in the aviation industry and is a massive component for making it more ecological (he can’t see the irony), has teamed up with Musk on this project. It is almost as if he predicts that Hyperloops with replace aeroplane travel in the next few years, and wants to be part of that revolution.
Of course with all of this, I am speculating. I don’t know the inner workings of Elon Musk’s mind (I don’t even think he does sometimes), but all I can say is that Musk is making some serious power moves to dominate any and all transport industries, not just on Earth, but also in Space. What is worrying is it appears no-one is in his way.
So, no matter where you want to go, whether it’s a drive to the shops, a trip to a nearby country, fly halfway across the world or even land on the surface of another planet, Musk has a craft for you. Get ready for some seriously amazing trips in the next few decades.