SpaceX Aims to Land Robotic Dragon Spacecraft on Mars In 2018

SpaceX Aims to Land Robotic Dragon Spacecraft on Mars In 2018

SpaceX announced today that it plans to send a robotic version of its Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.  Launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the “Red Dragon” would land on Mars using its own Super Draco rocket engines.  It is a SpaceX mission, but the company has an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA for technical assistance.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and lead designer, has made no secret that his overall space goal is sending thousands of people to Mars as a “backup plan” in case a catastrophe destroys Earth or makes it uninhabitable.  He plans to lay out details of his plan at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico at the end of September.

Earlier this week, SpaceX and NASA signed an amendment to an existing unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) setting forth terms for cooperation in the undertaking. NASA’s role is only to provide technical support and information, including: deep space communications and telemetry; deep space navigation and trajectory design; entry, descent and landing (EDL) system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic/aerothermal database development; general interplanetary mission and hardware consultation and advice; and planetary protection consultation and advice. The agreement was signed by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell and NASA’s Director for Commercial Spaceflight Development Philip McAlister.

In a blog post today, NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman said that among the many activities NASA has underway with American businesses, “we’re particularly excited about” this SpaceX project.  “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.”

Musk is well known for announcing bold goals and this certainly fits that bill.  The plan is to launch this mission “as soon as 2018,” just two years from now, even though the first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket has yet to take place. The Dragon spacecraft has flown to the International Space Station several times, but each time it returns to Earth, it splashes down in the ocean under parachutes.  Using Dragon’s own Super Draco engines to land on terra firma is a goal that has not been demonstrated so far, even though that is how the company plans to land on Mars, as shown in this SpaceX illustration. 

SpaceX illustration of Red Dragon landing on Mars.

A hover test of the Super Draco engines has been conducted, however, and they were used in a pad abort test last year.

The Falcon Heavy launch date has slipped several years already and commentators today were skeptical that a 2018 launch to Mars is realistic.  Landing on Mars is a challenge under any circumstances, as NASA’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” for the landing of the Curiosity rover in 2012 demonstrated.  Still, Musk’s recent success — after several tries — in landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship at sea raised his credibility in achieving what he sets out to do.

If successful, this would be the first private sector mission to Mars.  The only attempts to flyby, orbit or land spacecraft on Mars so far have been undertaken by governments and it is a record of mixed success.

SpaceX announced the plans in a series of tweets today.


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