Elon Musk’s plans to colonize the solar system

Artist's concept of a spaceship near Jupiter (Image courtesy SpaceX. All rights reserved)
Artist’s concept of a spaceship near Jupiter (Image courtesy SpaceX. All rights reserved)

Yesterday at the International Astronautical Congress just started in Guadalajara, Mexico, SpaceX founder Elon Musk explained his plans for manned interplanetary space missions that could also transport colonists. Despite recent problems caused by the explosion of one of his rockets his ambitions haven’t been affected, on the contrary he showed the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) project to transport human beings around the solar system.

Elon Musk has been saying he wants to colonize the planet Mars for quite some time and occasionally provides some updates on his plans. In 2014 in some occasions he spoke of his plans to send one million people to Mars but they seemed mostly abstract concepts, ideas to develop over many years. Now, however, he provided more detailed information on these plans, based on an evolution of existing technologies.

SpaceX has been developing rockets that are increasingly large and powerful to be able to transport a minimum of 100 people at a time. Even the Falcon Heavy rocket, the version of the Falcon 9 with three first stages that are ignited together to give a huge initial boost, is too small. Consequently, SpaceX is designing a rocket even bigger than the Saturn V, NASA’s rocket used for lunar missions. To have a comparison, the Falcon 9’s first stage uses nine engines, the Interplanetary Transport System’s will use 42 of them!

Until recently, the system in the design phase for these trips to Mars was called Mars Colonial Transporter. Elon Musk decided to change its name for now to a more generic Interplanetary Transport System because now he thinks that it can be also used to transport human beings elsewhere in the solar system. It remains a temporary name until a final one is chosen.

Certain technologies have already been developed, for example the controlled landing of the first stage after the launch that allows it to be reused. One of the first stages recovered after the recent Falcon 9 launches has yet to be tested in a second mission. The Raptor liquid methane and oxygen engines that will be used for the ITS are still under development.

Elon Musk’s plans are always very ambitious and to start the ITS trips to Mars it will take years but he thinks he can start them in less than a decade. His grand vision goes far beyond the giant transport system because Musk spoke of a permanent colony on the red planet and a time between 40 and 100 years in order to develop a self-sufficient civilization.

The main problem is perhaps in the costs, which according to Elon Musk are around $10 billion for the first launch. To allow ordinary people to buy a ticket to Mars the costs must come down significantly. This could be obtained with reusable rockets, supplies in space for the spaceships and using methane as a fuel with the possibility to harvest it on Mars, just like other resources for the colony.

There are so many other problems to solve such as protecting humans from radiation in deep space and on other planets that don’t have a magnetosphere that works as a shield like the Earth’s. Elon Musk is absolutely convinced that the human species must become multiplanetary to survive and is willing to invest everything he has to realize his project.

As in the past, the reactions to Elon Musk’s statements are divided among those admiring him and criticism. For him it’s not a problem since even his friends considered him crazy when he opened SpaceX. Certainly his interplanetary plans are extraordinarily ambitious with all the problems he has to solve but I think if anyone can do it that’s him.

SpaceX has created an animation showing how the transport of colonists on Mars will work.

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