SpaceX announced in a tweet today that the company would send its Dragon capsule to Mars as soon as 2018. Through two representative images accompanying the tweet, SpaceX also hinted that the capsules would be launched by the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, a heavier version of its currently operation Falcon 9 rocket. The tweet also indicated that multiple missions would be flown.
SpaceX was most recently in the news after one of its Falcon 9 rockets, in the course of a commercial launch to the International Space Station, delivered its payload and then came back down, landing upright on a barge floating off the coast of Florida. According to the company’s CEO Elon Musk, who’s made no secret of his ambition to colonise the red planet in his lifetime, reusing rockets is key to reducing launch costs and achieving that goal.
The Dragon was unveiled by SpaceX in May 2014 and has been designed to seat seven astronauts. However, Musk has acknowledged flying to Mars in that configuration could be cumbersome as the capsule’s internal volume is comparable to that of a SUV. It will be propelled by eight SuperDraco engines (all 3D-printed), which all together are capable of generating 54,430 kg of propulsive yield, more than sufficient to lift the 11-tonne container. Additionally, SpaceX plans to use a technique similar to the one in play when a Falcon 9 rocket is landed upright, called propulsive landing. Essentially, as a Dragon enters the Martian atmosphere and begins to descend toward the surface, the SuperDraco engines will fire downward and help the capsule slow down. Without them, and together with Mars’s atmosphere being thinner than Earth’s, Dragon would come crashing down.
Despite the excitement surrounding the announcement, two technical issues stand between now and a successful mission in 2018. The first is that the SuperDraco engines have only ever been fired all together once before, during the Dragon’s pad-abort test (PAT) in May 2015, and never to complete a propulsive landing. During the PAT, conducted to check if a vehicle can protect its human occupants should its launch meet with any glitches, the engines lifted Dragon to an altitude of 5,000 feet, after which the capsule descended into a waterbody using parachutes. The second is that not all versions of the Falcon Heavy rocket have been tested (it differs from the Falcon 9 in that the Heavy has two additional side boosters).
While SpaceX’s tweet had over 4,200 retweets within an hour of being published, no other information specific to the announcement has been forthcoming from the company. However, irrespective of when Musk chooses to post an update next, he has also said that he will be laying out his red-planet plans in detail at the International Aeronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September.