Well, that certainly came out of nowhere. Last night on Twitter, SpaceX decided to post a tweet. What was it about? Oh, just the small matter of an unmanned mission to Mars in 2018 – which would make it the first private company to go to the Red Planet.
We’ve long known that the company wants to send spacecraft to Mars, and ultimately humans, with a long-term view of colonizing it one day. But, according to CEO Elon Musk himself, we’d not expected to hear news about their missions to Mars until the International Astronautical Congress in September.
Instead, we now know SpaceX’s very basic plans. “Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018,” they tweeted. “Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture, details to come.”
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
The Red Dragon they’re referring to is an upgraded version of the Dragon spacecraft that’s already in operation, called Dragon 2. Aside from launching to space, this spacecraft is also intended to be able to touch down softly on the ground using thrusters, a propulsive landing, rather than using parachutes.
It appears that SpaceX is planning to use this same architecture, then, to send a version of Dragon to Mars in 2018. We’ve seen some mock-ups before of how they’d do this, but now we know when the first launch will be.
“Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system,” Elon Musk tweeted after the SpaceX announcement. “Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight.”
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
It’s unclear what this mission would be designed to do, whether it would have a scientific goal or merely be a technology demonstration. But, interestingly, NASA has already announced that they plan to help SpaceX, in exchange for SpaceX sharing their own information from the mission. NASA, of course, wants to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.
“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,” NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman said in a blog post.
Whether SpaceX does actually stick to this goal of 2018 remains to be seen. In order to launch to Mars, they’ll likely use their upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket, an upgraded version of the existing Falcon 9 rocket. We’re expecting to see the first flight of the Falcon Heavy later this year, although there’s no firm date yet.
A new SpaceX mock-up of a Falcon Heavy launching a Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX
Launches to Mars can only take place during specific launch windows when the planets are aligned, which occur every two years, so if SpaceX misses 2018 they’ll likely launch again in 2020. The first part of Europe’s ExoMars mission, for example, launched this year, with the next part launching in 2018.
It’s all rather exciting. Certainly, SpaceX seems to have some rather grand goals with regards to exploring the Solar System. And the more we explore Mars, the better. Hopefully, a human landing is not too far away.
“Mars exploration promises to answer enduring questions like: ‘Is it habitable and did life ever exist on Mars?’ Newman added in the blog post. Perhaps SpaceX, with NASA’s help, will bring us closer to answering this question.