In a surprising series of tweets on Wednesday, SpaceX announced that with the help of NASA, it is making good on its promise to “Occupy Mars” by launching its first, uncrewed mission to the Red Planet, possibly as soon as 2018.
The mission, which has been in the public domain for several years, is the “Red Dragon” concept, which would see an automated and specially modified Dragon 2.0 spacecraft lofted to Mars by a Falcon Heavy booster.
Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018. Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture, details to come pic.twitter.com/u4nbVUNCpA
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 27, 2016
Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2016
But wouldn't recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region. Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2016
From a propulsion standpoint, there is no doubt that once the Falcon Heavy becomes operational, Mars, as well as a Cis-Lunar space, is easily within reach. This was a point Elon Musk made when first introducing Falcon Heavy in 2011, and it is one some elements within NASA have focused on as the capabilities of the Dragon’s SuperDrago thrusters were revealed. The first proposal, out of NASA Ames, examined the feasibility of using the Dragon to land a sample drilling rig to look for signs of life, and that could be the form this mission ultimately takes.
A paper based on that work was presented was in 2012, in which SpaceX and NASA analysis found that a Dragon should be capable of landing at least 1 ton on much of the northern Martian hemisphere using a ballistic entry and propulsive landing burn. Critically, a descending Dragon would not require parachute deployment at any point, depending it its head shield, thrusters and relatively high ballistic co-efficiency to shed the velocity required to make a safe landing.
Since that point, ongoing analysis has further refined the concept, focusing on a guided entry which makes better use of the craft’s limited aerodynamic lift. In 2015, a NASA Future in Space Operations (FISO) presentation, also by NASA Ames and using publicly available information, found that a Red Dragon mission could land up to 2 tons of useful payload on the planet’s surface.
The particular mission presented in that proposal was a Mars Sample Return, but it highlights the remarkable versatility in the system, one which Elon Musk is quick to remind people was intended to be put to use not just at Mars, but all over the solar system. In the case of the Ames sample return concept, it would see the Dragon transport a small, two stage Earth return vehicle to the Red Planet, and send it back to near-Earth space packed with samples gathered by the Mars 2020 rover. At that point, a separate Dragon capsule, launched to the vicinity of the Moon, would rendezvous with the sample and return it safely to Earth.
The mission announced yesterday would not be a sample return, but it is being planned in conjunction with NASA by virtual of a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement. Basically, NASA will share what it knows with SpaceX about the intricacies of landing on Mars, as well as provide communications support through the Deep Space Network and advice on planetary protection protocols, while SpaceX will in turn share with NASA the data it gathers from the landing attempt. That data is potentially invaluable to NASA, as any future plans for landing humans on the Red Planet will depend on an approach similar to the one SpaceX is taking, rather than the creative ways NASA has found to land much smaller craft on the planet’s surface in the past. Any scientific data regarding the Martian environment must be released to the public no later than six months from when it is gathered.
The 2018 launch date will likely be greeted with a fair dose of skepticism considering the fact that the Falcon Heavy booster on which the concept depends has yet to make its maiden launch, having continually slipped dates. The Dragon 2.0 spacecraft on the other hand, appears to be making good progress in advance of its debut as part of the Commercial Crew program, a point underscored by last year’s Pad Abort Test, as well as a brief video of testing currently ongoing at its McGregor, Texas facility that SpaceX released yesterday.
In short, even if 2018 proves to be overly optimistic, the 2020 launch window is coming right behind, and with it a decade which may be prove to be the most consequential in the history of the space age.