SpaceX announces its first mission to Mars in 2018

SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft on Mars' surface (Image courtesy SpaceX. All rights reserved)
SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft on Mars’ surface (Image courtesy SpaceX. All rights reserved)

SpaceX announced plans to send its first commercial mission to the planet Mars as early as 2018. In Elon Musk’s company’s plans, the journey will be carried out automatically by the Red Dragon spacecraft, a variant of the Dragon 2. The Red Dragon will be launched atop a Falcon Heavy rocket, the version of SpaceX rocket with two additional boosters. NASA will provide technical support but will not fund the mission.

Elon Musk speaks often of his plans to go to spend his retirement on Mars, in a colony which in the meantime will be created. In October 2014 in an interview he talked about a long-term plan that consists in sending as many as one million people on the red planet to have a functioning colony and secure the future of humanity.

The formation of a colony on Mars is just the latest step in a series of missions that must begin with a demonstration of the technologies required to carry cargoes to the red planet. According to Elon Musk, the Falcon Heavy rocket will allow to send between two and four tons of cargo to the surface of Mars.

The Red Dragon spacecraft will be an evolution of the current Dragon and Dragon V2: a cargo spacecraft equipped with heat shield, parachutes and especially of a propulsion system for the controlled landing. SpaceX has already carried out tests on its SuperDraco propulsion system in the development of a landing system for its spacecraft in both cargo and manned versions.

This system was created to allow the Dragon to land in case of mission abort but it can work for a controlled landing at the end of a mission. Initially, the Dragon V2 is expected to splashdown while bringing back astronauts to Earth but the idea is to use the SuperDraco engines for a landing when the system has been perfected.

The Red Dragon will be launched using the Falcon Heavy rocket, announced as one of the most powerful rocket ever built thanks to the boosters which are very similar to its first stage. The first launch is scheduled to take place by the end of 2016 and in the coming years will be also used to launch heavy payloads.

For the Red Dragon spacecraft mission, there’s an agreement with NASA to provide technical support but no funding. NASA is developing its own program to carry astronauts to Mars in the ’30s so the agency has an interest in working with SpaceX to obtain useful information for its future missions.

SpaceX seems to have recovered from the June 28, 2015 mishap and, despite the delays that followed it, the company seems to be working at a remarkable speed to the Red Dragon mission. In addition to the successes in the controlled landings of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage, Elon Musk’s company just signed a contract for the launch of a GPS satellite III.

Elon Musk’s plans are always very ambitious and therefore raise doubts. When he decided to found SpaceX, he was considered crazy even by his friends but at the moment one of his Dragon is berthed to the International Space Station. Betting against him has become really hard.

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