SpaceX Announces Plan to Launch Private Dragon Mission to Mars in 2018

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

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.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending uncrewed SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

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.

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest spaceship to touchdown on the Red Planet to date.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

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.

“But wouldn’t recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region,” tweeted Musk.

“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.

SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launches to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 in this artists comcept.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launches to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 in this artists comcept. Credit: SpaceX

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.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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.

SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Completes Successful Crew Dragon Test of Astronaut Life Saving Escape System

Soaring on the power of an octet of SuperDrago engines, SpaceX successfully completed a critical rapid fire life-saving test of their Dragon crew capsules pad abort emergency escape system that would ignite in a split second to save the astronauts lives in the unlikely event of a failure of the Falcon 9 booster rocket at the Cape Canaveral launch pad.

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon roared swiftly skywards upon ignition of the test vehicle’s integrated SuperDraco engines at 9 a.m EDT this morning, Wednesday, May 6, for the mile high test conducted from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a specially built platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

A human-sized crash test dummy was seated inside for the test exercise which ended safely with a parachute assisted Atlantic Ocean splashdown after less than two minutes. There were no astronauts aboard.

The SuperDraco engines fired for approximately six seconds and accelerated the crew Dragon “from 0 to 100 mph in 1.2 seconds. It reached a top speed of about 345 mph,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a post test briefing.

“This bodes quite well for the future of the program. I don’t want to jinx it, but this is really quite a good indication for the future of Dragon.” said Elon Musk.

“We hope to launch the first crews to the ISS within about two years, plus or minus six months.”

The side mounted escape engines mark a revolutionary change from the traditional top mounted launch escape system used previously in the Mercury, Apollo, Soyuz and Orion human spaceflight capsules. The space shuttle had no escape system beyond ejections seats used on the first four flights.

Dragon was mounted atop the finned trunk section for the test. The entire Dragon/trunk assembly was about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

The test is a critical milestone towards the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

“This is a critical step toward ensuring crew safety for government and commercial endeavors in low-Earth orbit,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“Congratulations to SpaceX on what appears to have been a successful test on the company’s road toward achieving NASA certification of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for missions to and from the International Space Station.”

Here is a video of the Pad Abort Test:

Video caption: Powered by its SuperDraco engines, the uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon flies through its paces in the Pad Abort Test from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA

After all the monomethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide hypergolic propellants were consumed, Dragon soared as planned to an altitude of about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad. At about T+21 seconds the trunk was jettisoned and the spacecraft began a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again as it arced out eastwards over the ocean.

The drogue chutes and trio of red and white main parachutes deployed as planned for a picturesque Dragon splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean about a mile offshore of its Cape Canaveral launch pad. The capsule was retrieved from the ocean by waiting recovery boats.

Today’s pad abort demonstration tested the ability of the set of eight SuperDraco engines integrated directly into the side walls of the crew Dragon to ignite simultaneously and pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second – in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

Therefore the Pad Abort Test did not include an actual Falcon 9 booster since it was focused on a checkout of the capsule’s escape capability.

Sequence of May 6, 2015 SpaceX Pad Abort Test Flight in Four Frames. Credit: NASA
Sequence of May 6, 2015 SpaceX Pad Abort Test Flight in Four Frames. Credit: NASA

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs built into the capsule around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds in under one second, to propel the astronauts safely away.

The entire test lasted less than two minutes.

The test was webcast live on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The crew Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors to measure a wide range of vehicle, engine, acceleration and abort test parameters.

The pad abort test was accomplished under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA, that will eventually lead to certification of the Dragon for crewed missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

A second Dragon flight test follows later in the year, perhaps in the summer. It will launch from a SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q) at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives.

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the ocean.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX, at a prelaunch briefing.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Key Facts and Timeline for SpaceX Crewed Dragon’s First Test Flight May 6 – Watch Live

The first critical test flight of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon that will soon launch American astronauts back to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil is now less than two days away.

The test flight – called the Pad Abort Test – is slated for the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 6, if all goes well. The key facts and a timeline of the test events are outlined herein.

The test vehicle will reach roughly a mile in altitude (5000 feet, 1500 meters) and last only about 90 seconds in duration from beginning to end.

It constitutes a crucial first test of the crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the unlikely event of a catastrophic launch pad failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX has just released new images showing the Dragon crew capsule and trunk section being moved to the launch pad and being positioned atop the launch mount on SLC-40. See above and below. Together the Dragon assembly stands about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX

A test dummy is seated inside. And SpaceX now says the dummy is not named “Buster” despite an earlier announcement from the company.

“Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters. Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being,” SpaceX said today.

So, only time will tell if that particular mission fact will ever be revealed.

You can watch the Pad Abort Test via a live webcast on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT into the afternoon.

The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

The current weather forecast predicts a 70% GO for favorable weather conditions during the lengthy test window.

Since the Pad Abort Test is specifically designed to be a development test, in order to learn crucial things about the performance of the escape system, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable.

And delays due to technical issues are a very significant possibility.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX at a May 1 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center press site. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Here’s a graphic illustrating the May 6 SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of planned events.

Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40.  Credit: SpaceX
Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40. Credit: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon will accelerate to nearly 100 mph in barely one second. The test will last less than two minutes and the ship will travel over one mile in the first 20 seconds alone.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety.

The eight SuperDraco’s will propel Dragon nearly 100 meters (328 ft) in 2 seconds, and more than half a kilometer (1/3 mi) in just over 5 seconds.

SpaceX likens the test to “an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, but instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is “ejected” away from the launch vehicle.”

Here’s a timeline of events from SpaceX:

T-0: The eight SuperDracos ignite simultaneously and reach maximum thrust, propelling the spacecraft off the pad.

T+.5s: After half a second of vertical flight, Crew Dragon pitches toward the ocean and continues its controlled burn. The SuperDraco engines throttle to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s sensors.

T+5s: The abort burn is terminated once all propellant is consumed and Dragon coasts for just over 15 seconds to its highest point about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad.

T+21s: The trunk is jettisoned and the spacecraft begins a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again.

T+25s: Small parachutes, called drogues, are deployed first during a 4-6 second window following trunk separation.

T+35s: Once the drogue parachutes stabilize the vehicle, three main parachutes deploy and further slow the spacecraft before splashdown.

T+107s: Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean about 2200 meters (1.4 mi) downrange of the launch pad.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com