Three Words: SpaceX… Mars… 2018

Fans of Elon Musk and commercial space exploration are buzzing over the news! Back in 2002, when Musk first established the private aerospace company SpaceX, he did so with the intent of creating the technologies needed to reduce the cost of space transportation and enable crewed missions to Mars. And for the past few years, industry and the general public alike have been waiting on him to say when missions to Mars might truly begin.

Earlier this morning, Elon Musk did just that, when he tweeted from his company account that SpaceX plans to send a Dragon capsule to Mars by 2018. Despite talking about his eventual plans to mount crewed missions to Mars in the coming decades, and to even build a colony there, this is the first time that a specific date has been attached to any plans.

What was also indicated in the announcement was that the missions would be built around the “Red Dragon” mission architecture. As a modified, unmanned version of the Dragon capsule, this craft was conceived back in 2013 and 2015 as part of the NASA Discovery Program – specifically for Mission 13, a series of concepts which are scheduled to launch sometime in 2022.

Concept art showing a Dragon capsule landing on Mars. Credit: SpaceX
Concept art showing a Dragon capsule landing on Mars. Credit: SpaceX

Though the idea was never submitted to NASA, SpaceX has kept them on hand as part of a proposed low-cost Mars lander mission that would deploy a sample-return rover to the Martian surface. The mission will be deployed using a Falcon Heavy rocket, based on the mission profile and the illustrations that accompanied the announcement.

This mission would not only demonstrate SpaceX’s ability to procure samples from the Martian environment and bring them back to Earth – something that only federal space agencies like NASA have been able to do so far – but also test techniques and equipment that human crews will be using to enter the Martian atmosphere.

And if all goes well, we can expect that Musk will push forward with his plans for both crewed missions, and the development of all the necessary architecture to being work on his Mars Colonial Transporter, which he hopes to use to begin ferrying people to Mars to build his planned colony.

Stay tuned for more in-depth analysis of this announcement from our resident expert, Ken Kremer!