SpaceX announced plans to send an unmanned Dragon spacecraft to Mars, the first ever private mission to Mars, as early as 2018. This would be done with technical assistance from NASA and be the first step in achieving founder Elon Musk’s dream to fly people to and colonize the red planet. Known as ‘Red Dragon’, the variant of the Dragon 2 spacecraft will be launched by the Falcon Heavy rocket, ahead of a soft landing on the surface of Mars.
“SpaceX is planning to send Dragons to Mars as early as 2018,” the company posted in a brief announcement today on Facebook and Twitter about the history making endeavor. It also said “Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture’, adding details to come, without elaborating further.
The announcement, didn’t include any specifics about the mission, and did not address all the major technical and funding questions. The company plans to fund the mission itself, but would seek technical support from NASA, spokesperson said.
SpaceX signed an agreement with NASA that mainly involves technical support from NASA and exchanging entry, descent and landing (EDL) technology, deep space communications, telemetry and navigation support, hardware advice, and interplanetary mission and planetary protection advice and consultation.
Though the agreement with NASA specifically states there is ‘no-exchange-of-funds’ between the two, it also mentions that they will share ‘Mars Science Data’.
The announcement marks SpaceX’s first target date for its unmanned mission to Mars. The 2018 timetable is significant because a launch at that time could take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime close approach of the orbits of Earth and Mars.
The 2018 Mars mission involves launching the ‘Red Dragon’ also known as Dragon 2, on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Red Dragon initiative is a commercial endeavor that’s privately funded by SpaceX. CEO, entrepreneur and billionaire founder Musk who helped to found Tesla Motors and PayPal, started SpaceX in 2002 to develop technologies needed for human transportation to Mars, a long-term goal of his company formally known as Space Exploration Technologies.
Musk’s space exploration goals involve creating a human Mars colony, ‘City on Mars’. Musk has often talked about his dream, more important to him, than the financial success of his separate space and electric-car companies, to build colonies on Mars, with thousands of inhabitants served by space flights to and from earth.
Now Musk has taken a significant step towards fulfilling his Red Planet vision but we’ll have to wait another 5 months for concrete details. Musk will reveal his plans for the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) – and associated architecture – later this year at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Guadalajara, Mexico from September 26 to 30, 2016.
Landing on Mars is not easy. To date only NASA has successfully soft landed probes on Mars that returned significant volumes of useful science data.
The main goal is to propulsively land something 5-10 times the size of anything previously landed before. Mr. Musk has claimed Dragon 2 has a ‘much greater reach’, thanks to the increased performance of the FH, with the rocket expected to conduct a debut launch this year.
“Dragon 2 is capable of transporting scientific payloads to anywhere in the solar system, with a liquid or solid surface, with or without an atmosphere. So Dragon is really a crew transport and science delivery platform,” Mr. Musk said after the Dragon 2 vehicle successfully conducted a Pad Abort test under the NASA Commercial Crew Program milestones.
Utilizing Falcon Heavy, Mr. Musk stated that Dragon will be capable of transporting two to four tons of payload to the surface of the Red Planet, with varying options for other destinations.
If SpaceX pulls this off, the Red Dragon will be one of the largest things to ever land on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover weighed 1,982 pounds when it landed, but the Red Dragon will weigh five to 10 times more than any other vehicle landed on Mars, according to SpaceX.
A successful landing on Mars will help SpaceX demonstrate the technologies needed to land larger payloads propulsively on Mars.
The landing site is also currently unknown, although previous notes mentioned Jezero and Argyre have been of interest to the NASA side. SpaceX will make the final determination on the landing target.
Meanwhile, NASA has its own Journey to Mars initiative, which entails sending astronauts to Mars but not until the 2030s. It is investing in its own heavy-lift rocket, capsule and launch pad changes for Mars travel. It has sketched out its own vision of eventual human exploration of Mars. It says it needs at least two decades and well over $100 billion apart from extensive international cooperation to send astronauts land on the planet.
Mr. Musk has indicated that SpaceX could very well land humans in Mars by 2025.
It seems that Mr. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, has crafted some definitive plans, and suggest the company is more advanced than many outsiders had believed, in developing versions of its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rockets aimed at eventually exploring deep into the solar system.