SpaceX, the space launch company founded by Elon Musk, plans to send a spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018, in the first stage of an audacious plan to establish a human colony on Earth’s nearest neighbour.
News of the plans emerged on Wednesday after Nasa, the US space agency, published details of an agreement under which it would support the voyage of a SpaceX Red Dragon craft to the planet.
The plans — the first interplanetary mission by a commercial company — mark the first stage in the realisation of Mr Musk’s vision to turn humans into a species living on more than one planet. However, the small craft — based on SpaceX’s resupply capsules for the International Space Station — will be uncrewed.
SpaceX confirmed the plans on its Twitter and Facebook accounts. It said the Red Dragon missions would support the technologies needed to “land large payloads propulsively on Mars”. Mr Musk is expected to announce fuller details of his plans for a Mars colony at a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September.
“Red Dragon missions to Mars will help inform the overall Mars colonisation architecture that SpaceX will reveal later this year,” the company said.
The Mars announcement came on the same day that the US Air Force awarded SpaceX its first ever contract to launch a US national security satellite. The company will be paid $87.2m to carry a GPS satellite into orbit next May. The company won the right to launch spy satellites — previously a monopoly of United Launch Alliance — in May last year.
Dava Newman, a Nasa deputy administrator, wrote in a blog post about the agency’s plans for a crewed mission to Mars that the agency was “particularly excited” about the SpaceX project, one of several co-operation deals with private companies.
“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,” Ms Newman wrote.
The agreement commits Nasa to offer SpaceX help with deep space navigation and communications, design of the spacecraft’s trajectory and help with developing the landing system.
The SpaceX mission will use a version of the Dragon spacecraft that currently flies to the International Space Station under SpaceX’s resupply contracts with Nasa. As part of work to develop a version of the capsule that can carry astronauts, SpaceX has developed and tested motors that allow the craft to make a safe landing on earth in the event of an emergency during take-off. SpaceX would adapt that system to allow the craft to touch down on Mars.
SpaceX released a YouTube video of a test of the system on a launch pad in Texas, filmed in November.
The craft would be launched on its journey by SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket, a heavy-lift version of its existing Falcon 9, which it expects to fly for the first time later this year. Because interplanetary missions require spacecraft to be launched from earth’s surface faster than orbital flights such as missions to the space station, they depend on heavy rockets, usually three standard rockets strapped together.
At present, the US’s only heavy-lift rocket is United Launch Alliance’s expensive Delta IV Heavy. SpaceX expects that the Falcon Heavy will offer a far more economic heavy launch capability.
While SpaceX did not say how long it expected Red Dragon’s trip to take, journey times to Mars for space probes are generally between three and six months, depending on the route taken.
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