Elon Musk and his commercial space company plan to send their Dragon spaceships on a mission to Mars by 2018 as a first step to establishing Martian colonies, the billionaire tweeted Wednesday.
SpaceX, which successfully test landed a recyclable rocket earlier this month, announced a timeline for its Mars missions that is planned to end with humans living on the red planet sometime in the 2030’s.
“Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight.”
The company’s first unmanned mission to Mars in 2018 will be completed with a robotic Red Dragon capsule, a modified version of the spacecraft SpaceX currently uses to reach the International Space Station. The mission would demonstrate the private space company’s ability to send large payloads to the Red Planet, including supplies and habitats for future explorers.
“Wouldn’t recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region. Wouldn’t be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~ size of SUV.”
The SpaceX Mars missions would be blasted into space by the Falcon Heavy rocket, a bigger version of the Falcon 9 rocket. Neither the rocket nor the upgraded Dragon 2 spacecraft is ready to fly yet, but the rocket’s maiden voyage is scheduled for later this year. It’s scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center later this year.
When it’s completed, the Dragon 2 spacecraft will be equipped with eight SuperDraco engines that allow the capsule to land vertically, and softly, on Martian ground. It’s called propulsive landing, and it’s critical to landing safely on the red planet.
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
In an ambitious collaboration, NASA has agreed to help Musk and SpaceX make their first trip to Mars, NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman told the Financial Times.
“In exchange for Martian entry, descent and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars.”
Mars is some 140 million miles away from Earth and, even under the best circumstances it takes months to get there; SpaceX would be the first private company to make it all the way to the Red Planet.
The ability to land softly and safely on Mars is essential for the construction and maintenance of colonies on the Red Planet that humanity needs to begin populating by 2025 to protect against possible extinction, Musk told reporters in January.
The Tesla founder has maintained that mankind needs a backup to the Earth in case a killer asteroid or nuclear mishap makes the planet unlivable.
The billionaire envisions colonies of Martian explorers serviced by regular deliveries of food and supplies from Earth based shuttles.
The surface of Mars, as seen from space pic.twitter.com/mTk8hmVTht— StarGazers (@StarGazerPH0T0S) April 28, 2016
The announcement of the Mars mission came the same day the U.S. Air Force gave SpaceX its first contract to carry a national security satellite into orbit.
SpaceX plans to begin ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station next year. NASA, meanwhile, continues its own plans for a manned trip to Mars, which it has said will require global cooperation and $100 billion budget.
International cooperation will be the key to successfully landing a man on Mars, Newman told the Washington Post.
“In the international space community, gone are the days of the ‘space race’ when the dominant theme was that of various nations racing against each other. Instead, we’re increasingly running together.”
Musk plans to announce his full plans for a Mars colony complete with life support systems later this year.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images