SpaceX has entered into an agreement with NASA for a Dragon mission to Mars, set to take place as early as 2018. Known as “Red Dragon”, the variant of the Dragon 2 spacecraft will be launched by the Falcon Heavy rocket, ahead of a soft landing on the surface of Mars. The mission is also part of an agreement with NASA to gain further data on Mars landings.
SpaceX’s Martian ambitions are well known, although this year will finally see an outline of the ambitious roadmap that it hopes will eventually result in a human colony on the Red Planet.
SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk is expected to reveal his plans for the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) – and associated architecture – this summer at the International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Red Dragon was always seen as the first step towards that eventual goal. On Wednesday, SpaceX’s announcement pointed to the completion of the main phase of an agreement with NASA, likely via a Space Act Agreement (SAA), to work together on a mission to Mars.
These plans involve the Red Dragon conducting a propulsive landing on Mars, following its launch on a Falcon Heavy from SpaceX’s Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Previously, Mr. Musk has claimed Dragon 2 has a “much greater reach”, thanks to the increased performance of the FH, with the rocket expected to conduct a debut launch this year.
“Dragon 2 is capable of transporting scientific payloads to anywhere in the solar system, with a liquid or solid surface, with or without an atmosphere. So Dragon is really a crew transport and science delivery platform,” Mr. Musk said, speaking after the Dragon 2 vehicle successfully conducted a Pad Abort test under the NASA Commercial Crew Program milestones.
“When boosted on a Falcon Heavy, Dragon can go pretty much anywhere, so we’re excited about exploring that possibility.”
Utilizing Falcon Heavy, Mr. Musk stated that Dragon will be capable of transporting two to four tons of payload to the surface of the Red Planet, with varying options for other destinations.
“With Dragon launched on a Falcon Heavy, it can go pretty much anywhere in the solar system, because that’s a heck of a big rocket,” he continued.
“Dragon, with the heat shield, parachutes and propulsive landing capability, is able to land on a planet that has higher entry heating, like Mars. It can also land on the Moon, or potentially conduct a Europa mission.”
A successful landing on Mars will help SpaceX demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars, while providing the role of a scout ship, informing the company’s overall Mars colonization architecture and potential landing sites rich in raw materials required for its Mars colony.
For NASA, it will also add to its own knowledge base about the Red Planet, ahead of its own proposed missions to Mars in the late 2030s.
“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,” noted NASA deputy Administrator Dava Newman. “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.”
Red Dragon’s soft landing will be conducted via the power of its eight SuperDraco engines.
These liquid thrusters reach maximum thrust within approximately 100 milliseconds of the ignition command, and can be throttled to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s onboard sensors.
Last year’s Pad Abort test showed the thrusters in action, lofting the Dragon vehicle away from the pad complex, as would be the scenario if a crewed launch was suffering from a major malfunction with the launch vehicle during the final part of the countdown.
The SuperDracos can be employed for an abort requirement throughout the ascent phase of a launch, as will be further tested via the upcoming In-Flight abort test.
Because the abort system is embedded into the vehicle, as opposed to being discarded during ascent like the traditional tractor LAS, a nominal Dragon mission will allow the spacecraft to utilize the SuperDraco engines for propulsive landings.
“Dragon also has the ability to use those same engines to land propulsively, because if the propellant is not used for an abort, then it is available to be used for landings,” Mr. Musk said.
Those propulsive landings will be eventually employed by the Dragon 2 returning home from missions to the International Space Station (ISS), but also – as now officially announced – for soft landings on Mars.
NASA is yet to announce the list of scientific instrumentation that may fly on the Red Dragon, although both NASA Ames and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) were understood to be involved with the formulation of the agreement as of last year.
An updated SAA document – signed this week – notes a large amount of information sharing is the initial part of the agreement between the two entities.
The landing site is also currently unknown, although previous notes mentioned Jezero and Argyre have been of interest to the NASA side. SpaceX will make the final determination on the landing target.
Images: SpaceX and renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)
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