Earth is in the midst of a climate crisis. Thanks to the way CO2 emissions have been rising rapidly since the early 20th century, global temperatures are rising, triggering a positive feedback cycle that threatens to make it worse. According to recent analyses, even if the industrialized nations agree to slash carbon emissions drastically, global warming will not begin to slow until mid-century. For this reason, emission reduction needs to be paired with carbon capture to ensure we avoid the worst-case scenarios.
Meanwhile, there is a significant outcry from the public concerning commercial space. Whereas advocates like Elon Musk argue that increasing access to space is key to our long-term survival, critics and detractors respond by stating that commercial space “steals focus” from Earth’s problems and that rocket launches produce excessive carbon emissions. In what could be a response to these challenges, Musk recently announced that SpaceX would be starting a carbon capture (CC) program to create propellants for his rockets.
“The core essence of Mars City Design is —not to repeat the same mistakes that we did to our planet. The hope to start a new design for living on Mars, every single thing needs to have a sustainable answer within the big picture, of the regenerative circle of life and of the product itself. All things need an exit plan that allows them to be reusable or repurposed. That can hopefully inspire change on Earth.”
-Vera Mulyani (Vera Mars), Founder/CEO Mars City Design
Once the stuff of science fiction, the possibility that humans could establish a permanent settlement on Mars now appears to be a genuine possibility. While doing so represents a major challenge and there are many hurdles that still need to be overcome, the challenge itself is inspiring some truly creative solutions. But what is especially interesting is how these same solutions can also address problems here on Earth.
This is especially clear where the Mars City Design Challenges are concerned. This annual competition was founded with the purpose of inspiring innovative ideas that could lead to sustainable living on Mars. For this year’s challenge, “Urban Farming for Extreme Environment,” Mars City Design and its founder (Vera Mulyani) are looking for designs that incorporate urban farming to support a colony of 100 people.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – With so many exciting projects competing for the finite time of SpaceX’s super talented engineers, something important had to give. And that something comes in the form of slipping the blastoff of SpaceX’s ambitious Red Dragon initiative to land the first commercial spacecraft on Mars by 2 years – to 2020. Nevertheless it will include a hefty science payload, SpaceX’s President told Universe Today.
The Red Dragon launch postponement from 2018 to 2020 was announced by SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell during a Falcon 9 prelaunch press conference at historic pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, said SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell at the pad 39a briefing.
“So we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that.”
And whenever Red Dragon does liftoff, it will carry a significant “science payload” to the Martian surface, Shotwell told me at the pad 39A briefing.
“As much [science] payload on Dragon as we can,” Shotwell said. Science instruments would be provided by “European and commercial guys … plus our own stuff!”
Whereas SpaceX is footing the bill for the private Red Dragon venture.
Pad 39A is the same pad from which the Red Dragon mission will eventually blastoff atop a heavy lift SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket – and which just reopened for launch business last week on Feb. 19 after lying dormant for more than 6 years since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program in July 2011.
So at least the high hurdle of reopening pad 39A has been checked off!
SpaceX continues to dream big – setting its extraterrestrial sights on the Moon and Mars.
Musk founded SpaceX with the dream of transporting Humans to the Red Planet and establishing a ‘City on Mars’.
Since launch windows to Mars are only available every two years due to the laws of physics and planetary alignments, the minimum Red Dragon launch delay automatically amounts to 2 years.
Furthermore the oft delayed Falcon Heavy has yet to launch on its maiden mission.
Shotwell said the maiden Falcon Heavy launch from pad 39A is planned to occur this summer, around mid year or so – after Pad 40 is back up and running.
And the commercial crew Dragon 2 spacecraft being built under contract to NASA to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) has also seen its maiden launch postponed more than six months over the past calendar year.
Finishing the commercial crew Dragon is absolutely critical to NASA for launching US astronauts to the ISS from US soil – in order to end our total dependence on Russia and the Soyuz capsule at a cost in excess of $80 million per seat.
The bold Red Dragon endeavor which involved launching an uncrewed version of the firms Dragon cargo spacecraft to carry out a propulsive soft landing on Mars as soon as 2018, was initially announced with great fanfare by SpaceX less than a year ago in April 2016.
At that time, SpaceX signed a space act agreement with NASA, wherein the agency will provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to Mars landing technologies for ‘Red Dragon’ and NASA would reciprocally benefit from SpaceX technologies for Mars landing.
But given the magnitude of the work required for this extremely ambitious Mars landing mission, the two year postponement was pretty much expected from the beginning by this author.
The main goal is to propulsively land the heaviest payload ever on Mars – something 5-10 times the size of anything landed before.
“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX noted last April.
Red Dragon will utilize supersonic retropropulsion to achieve a safe touchdown.
I asked Shotwell whether Red Dragon would include a science payload? Would Universities and Industry compete to submit proposals?
“Yes we had planned to fly [science] stuff in 2018, but people are also more ready to fly in 2020 than 2018,” Shotwell replied.
“Yes we are going to put as much [science] payload on Dragon as we can. By the way, just Dragon landing alone will be the largest mass ever put on the surface of Mars. Just the empty Dragon alone. That will be pretty crazy!”
“There are a bunch of folks that want to fly [science], including European customers, commercial guys.”
“Yeah there will be [science] stuff on Dragon – plus our own stuff!” Shotwell elaborated.
Whenever it does fly, SpaceX will utilize a recycled cargo Dragon from one of the space station resupply missions for NASA, said Jessica Jensen, SpaceX Dragon Mission manager at a KSC media briefing.
NASA’s still operating 1 ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest spaceship to touchdown on the Red Planet to date.
Photos above and below from myself and colleagues capture Falcon’s 2nd ‘lift off’ – this time at dusk on June 2, via crane power as workers hoisted it off its ocean landing platform – with an American flag flying proudly below – onto a ground based work platform to carry out initial processing.
The booster triumphantly entered the waterway into Port Canaveral, Fl by way of the ocean mouth at Jetty Park pier at about 11: 45 a.m. on June 2 under clear blue skies.
It continued sailing serenely along the Port Canaveral channel – towed behind the Elsbeth III tugboat – making a picture perfect tour for lucky spectators for another 30 minutes or so until docking at the SpaceX ground processing facility.
All in all it was quite appropriately an ‘otherworldly’ scene reminiscent of a great scifi movie.
Watch this video from my photojournalist colleague Jeff Seibert.
Video caption: The SpaceX F9 booster from the Thaicom-8 launch returns to Cape Canaveral on June 2, 2016 after completing an at sea landing on the OCISLY drone ship 6 days earlier. A hard landing caused a leg to activate a crush structure and it is tilting about 4 degrees. That is half the booster tilt angle that Elon Musk expected should be recoverable. Credit: Jeff Seibert
The beaming 156-foot-tall Falcon 9 booster had propulsively landed six days earlier atop the specially designed SpaceX ‘droneship’ named “Of Course I Still Love You” or “OCISLY” less than 9 minutes after the spectacular May 27 blastoff.
The Falcon 9 was leaning some 5 degrees or so on the droneship upon which it had landed on May 27 while it was stationed approximately 420 miles (680 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida, surrounded by the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
After docking, SpaceX workers then spent the next few hours carefully maneuvering and attaching a pyramidal shaped metal hoisting cap by crane to the top of the 15 story tall first stage – as it was firmly secured to the deck of the droneship via multiple tie downs.
It was a delicately choreographed and cautiously carried out operation, complicated by the fact that this used, returned booster was tilted. The prior two sea landed Falcon 9 boosters landed perfectly upright in April and May.
Indeed a pair of technicians had to ride a cherry picker lift to the very top to help fasten the cap securely in place as it was slowly lowered in the late afternoon.
Workers then spent several more hours undoing and removing the tiedowns to the droneship deck, one by one.
Finally and with no fanfare the ‘GO’ command was suddenly given.
At dusk, Falcons 2nd ‘ascent’ began at around 8 p.m. The small group of us patiently watching and waiting all day from across the channel had no warning or advance notice. My guestimate is Falcon rose perhaps 30 to 40 feet.
It was craned over to the right and lowered onto the waiting ground based retention work platform. Altogether the whole movement took some 10 minutes.
The Falcon 9 was carrying the Thaicom-8 telecommunications satellite to orbit as its primary goal for the commercial launch from a paying customer.
It roared to life with 1.5 million pounds of thrust from the first stage Merlin 1 D engines and successfully propelled the 7000 pound (3,100 kilograms) commercial Thai communications satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).
Landing on the droneship was a secondary goal of SpaceX’s visionary CEO and founder Elon Musk.
It was leaning due to the high speed reentry and a touchdown landing speed near the maximum sustainable by the design.
“Rocket landing speed was close to design max & used up contingency crush core, hence back & forth motion,” tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
“Prob ok, but some risk of tipping.”
That tilting added significant extra technical efforts by the SpaceX workers to stabilize it at sea and bring it back safely and not tip over calamitously during the six day long sea voyage back to home port.
““Rocket back at port after careful ocean transit. Leaning back due to crush core being used up in landing legs,” SpaceX explained.
What is the crush core?
“Crush core is aluminum honeycomb for energy absorption in the telescoping actuator. Easy to replace (if Falcon makes it back to port),” Musk tweeted during the voyage home.
The landing leg design follows up and improves upon on what was used and learned from NASA’s Apollo lunar landers in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Falcon’s landing leg crush core absorbs energy from impact on touchdown. Here’s what it looked like on Apollo lander,” noted SpaceX
Check out this graphic tweeted by SpaceX.
Technicians started removing the quartet of landing legs on Friday. I observed the first one being detached late Friday, June 3.
The booster was rotated horizontally after all the legs were removed and transported back to the SpaceX processing hangar at the Kennedy Space Center at Launch Complex 39A.
The three prior landed boosters were all moved to 39 A for thorough inspection, analysis and engine testing. One will be refurbished and recycled for reuse.
Video caption: Thaicom 8 booster is lifted from autounomous drone ship to dry land for transport on 2 June 2016. Time Lapse. Credit: USLaunchReport
Later this year, SpaceX hopes to relaunch one of the recovered first stage boosters.
The SpaceX rockets and recovery technology are all being developed so they will one day lead to establishing a ‘City on Mars’ – according to the SpaceX’s visionary CEO and founder Elon Musk.
Musk aims to radically slash the cost of launching future rockets by recycling them and using them to launch new payloads for new paying customers.
Musk hopes to launch humans to Mars by the mid-2020s.
Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral and the SpaceX launch pad.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
SpaceX announced plans today, April 27, for the first ever private mission to Mars which involves sending an uncrewed version of the firms Dragon spacecraft to accomplish a propulsive soft landing – and to launch it as soon as 2018 including certain technical assistance from NASA.
Under a newly signed space act agreement with NASA, the agency will provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to Mars landing technologies for the new spacecraft known as a ‘Red Dragon’ and possibly also for science activities.
“SpaceX is planning to send Dragons to Mars as early as 2018,” the company posted in a brief announcement today on Facebook and other social media about the history making endeavor.
The 2018 commercial Mars mission involves launching the ‘Red Dragon’ – also known as Dragon 2 – on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s a prelude to eventual human missions.
The Red Dragon initiative is a commercial endeavor that’s privately funded by SpaceX and does not include any funding from NASA. The agreement with NASA specifically states there is “no-exchange-of-funds.”
As of today, the identity and scope of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.
Hopefully it will include a diverse suite of exciting research instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as high powered cameras and spectrometers characterizing the Martian surface, atmosphere and environment.
SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk has previously stated his space exploration goals involve helping to create a Mars colony which would ultimately lead to establishing a human ‘City on Mars.’
Musk is also moving full speed ahead with his goal of radically slashing the cost of access to space by recovering a pair of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage boosters via successful upright propulsive landings on land and at sea – earlier this month and in Dec. 2015.
The 2018 liftoff campaign marks a significant step towards fulfilling Musk’s Red Planet vision. But we’ll have to wait another 5 months for concrete details.
“Red Dragon missions to Mars will also help inform the overall Mars colonization architecture that SpaceX will reveal later this year,” SpaceX noted.
Musk plans to reveal the details of the Mars colonization architecture later this year at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Guadalajara, Mexico from September 26 to 30, 2016.
Landing on Mars is not easy. To date only NASA has successfully soft landed probes on Mars that returned significant volumes of useful science data.
In the meantime a few details about the SpaceX Red Dragon have emerged.
The main goal is to propulsively land something 5-10 times the size of anything previously landed before.
“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX further posted.
As part of NASA’s agency wide goal to send American astronauts on a human ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s, NASA will work with SpaceX on some aspects of the Red Dragon initiative to further the agency’s efforts.
According to an amended space act agreement signed yesterday jointly by NASA and SpaceX officials – that originally dates back to November 2014 – this mainly involves technical support from NASA and exchanging entry, descent and landing (EDL) technology, deep space communications, telemetry and navigation support, hardware advice, and interplanetary mission and planetary protection advice and consultation.
“We’re particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement we have with the company,” NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman wrote in a NASA blog post today.
“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.”
“This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry,” NASA noted in a statement.
The amended agreement with NASA also makes mention of sharing “Mars Science Data.”
As of today, the identity, scope and weight of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.
Perhaps it could involve a suite of science instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as cameras and spectrometers characterizing various aspects of the Martian environment.
In the case of NASA, the joint agreement states that data collected with NASA assets is to be released within a period not to exceed 6 months and published where practical in scientific journals.
The Red Dragon envisioned for blastoff to the Red Planet as soon as 2018 would launch with no crew on board on a critical path finding test flight that would eventually pave the way for sending humans to Mars – and elsewhere in the solar system.
“Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight,” said Musk.
“Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system.”
However, the Dragon 2 alone is far too small for a round trip mission to Mars – lasting some three years or more.
“Wouldn’t be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV.”
Furthermore, for crewed missions it would also have to be supplemented with additional modules for habitation, propulsion, cargo, science, communications and more. Think ‘The Martian’ movie to get a realistic idea of the complexity and time involved.
Red Dragon’s blastoff from KSC pad 39A is slated to take place during the Mars launch window opening during April and May 2018.
The inaugural liftoff of the Falcon Heavy is currently scheduled for late 2016 after several years postponement.
If all goes well, Red Dragon could travel to Mars at roughly the same time as NASA’s next Mission to Mars – namely the InSight science lander, which will study the planets deep interior with a package of seismometer and heat flow instruments.
InSight’s launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V is targeting a launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018. Liftoff was delayed from this year due to a flaw in the French-built seismometer.
Whoever wants to land on Mars also has to factor in the relevant International treaties regarding ‘Planetary Protection’ requirements.
Wherever the possibility for life exists, the worlds space agency’s who are treaty signatories, including NASA, are bound to adhere to protocols limiting contamination by life forms from Earth.
SpaceX intends to take planetary protection seriously. Under the joint agreement, SpaceX is working with relevant NASA officials to ensure proper planetary protection procedures are followed. One of the areas of collaboration with NASA is for them to advise SpaceX in the development a Planetary Protection Plan (PPP) and assist with the implementation of a PPP including identifying existing software/tools.
Red Dragon is derived from the SpaceX crew Dragon vehicle currently being developed under contract for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to transport American astronauts back and forth to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).
SpaceX and Boeing were awarded commercial crew contracts from NASA back in September 2014.
Both firms hope to launch unmanned and manned test flights of their SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the ISS starting sometime in 2017.
The crew Dragon is also an advanced descendent of the original unmanned cargo Dragon that has ferried tons of science experiments and essential supplies to the ISS since 2012.
To enable propulsive landings, SpaceX recently conducted hover tests using a Dragon 2 equipped with eight side-mounted SuperDraco engines at their development testing facility in McGregor, TX.
These are “Key for Mars landing,” SpaceX wrote.
“We are closer than ever before to sending American astronauts to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been,” Newman states.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.