Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX just announced plans to send its Red Dragon spacecraft on an unmanned mission to Mars as early as 2018. While the timing may be a surprise to many, the decision to launch a mission to Mars is not — the company has been hinting at its intentions for some time already. In an interview with Wired, rocket scientist David Hewitt said that the company has been preparing for this mission for years.
The launch will likely happen in the next 24 months, since May 2018 is the opening of the next Mars launch window — the brief period when the planet’s orbit brings it closest to Earth. In the meantime, there’s plenty of work still to be done – from building the rocket to figuring out the best way to land the craft on the red planet’s surface.
One major challenge will be successfully launching a Falcon Heavy rocket, consisting of three of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets combined. While the company has had some success with the smaller rockets, the Heavy will be much more difficult to control, considering that all twenty-seven engines will have to function perfectly during the launch.
Landing the Red Dragon successfully won’t come easily, either. Because of the thin atmosphere on Mars, a parachute can’t be used to slow down the capsule — there simply isn’t enough drag to do the job. Instead, the Red Dragon will use eight paired SuperDraco boosters to slow its descent, a feat which the company has found challenging enough to accomplish on this planet.
The Red Dragon mission would a no-funds-exchanged partnership with NASA, meaning that the agency will share its expertise with SpaceX and allow the company access to the government Deep Space Network, making communication with the spacecraft easier. In return, NASA hopes to receive valuable data that will aid the planning of future missions to Mars.
Images via SpaceX