Elon Musk has revealed a ton of new information about his plans for the future of space exploration. This includes his ideas for going to Mars, and the difficulty in launching a huge new rocket.
The SpaceX CEO revealed the tidbits yesterday at a typically packed talk at the ISS R&D conference in Washington DC. For starters, he said that they were no longer considering using their existing Dragon capsule to perform unmanned landings on Mars as early as 2020, known as Red Dragon.
“There was a time when I thought that the Dragon approach to landing on Mars... would be the right way to land on Mars,” he said. “But now I'm pretty confident that is not the right way. There's a far better approach. That's what the next generation of SpaceX rockets and spacecraft is going to do.”
While not elaborating on this approach per se, he did tweet later on that the plan was still to do powered landings, but with a “vastly bigger ship”. We don’t yet know what this would be, and whether it’s related to his broader plans to get humans to Mars with the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS).
Red Dragon was supposed to be the start of the company’s forays to Mars. SpaceX had been developing thrusters for its Dragon capsule, which is used to transport cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), so that it could perform powered landings on the ground. Currently, it uses to parachutes to drop into the ocean, requiring considerable refurbishment.
This same technology was supposedly going to be used to place a modified Dragon, Red Dragon, on the surface of Mars. That now looks unlikely.
“It was a tough decision,” he said in a Q&A session. He added that the next Dragon the company is developing would technically still have the ability to perform a powered landing, but “you’d have to land it on some pretty soft landing pad because we’ve deleted the little legs that pop out of the heat shield.”
One of the reasons for dropping this was supposedly to do with safety, as getting a human-rated spacecraft safe enough to perform powered landings could have been very difficult.
Musk drew huge crowds, as usual
While not revealing any new details about getting 1 million people to Mars in a century with the ITS, Musk did say they had evolved the mission quite a bit since he gave a talk on it at the International Aeronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico in September 2016. He also suggested that a smaller version of the ITS may be used to launch commercial payloads.
Most notably, he said he’s figured out how to pay for the whole thing. “It’s super expensive,” he added. More details may be revealed at this year’s IAC in Australia in September.
He also talked about SpaceX’s huge new upcoming rocket, different from the ITS, called the Falcon Heavy. This is expected to launch for the first time later this year, or early next. In doing so, it will become the most powerful rocket in operation today. But Musk noted the first launch might be exciting for all the wrong reasons, if the rocket ends up exploding.
"There is a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, a real good chance that that vehicle doesn't make it to orbit," he said. "I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it's not going to cause damage. I would consider that a win, honestly. Major pucker factor is the only way to describe it.”
Musk also said that SpaceX was hoping to reuse the first stages of their Falcon 9 rockets in 24 hours by next year. The company has already successfully landed a handful of these rockets, and now hopes to up the reusability game.
While there may be some disappointing news for SpaceX fans, Musk seems to mostly have been quelling expectations. Excitingly, though, they’ve still got 12 more launches planned for this year. If they pull all those off, they’ll have launched 22 rockets in 2017, more than double they’ve ever done before.
Here's the talk in full for your viewing pleasure