SpaceX reveals ITS Mars game changer via colonization plan

by Chris Bergin and Chris Gebhardt

SpaceX’s Elon Musk has made his landmark speech, finally revealing details of his plans to make humanity a multiplanetary species. In a keynote speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk outlined a monster rocket and huge spacecraft capable of transporting at least 100 people to Mars – a planet Musk appears to have ambitions of terraforming.

Musk and Mars:

Almost from the very beginning of SpaceX’s conception, Musk has been on a mission to change the paradigm of the rocket business.

A multi-faceted approach has been employed, revolving around the reduction of the costs involved with launching rockets, mainly via the technology of safely returning them after launch for reuse on future missions.

While SpaceX has not been immune to the inherent risks of the launch business – suffering three failures in a row during its opening Falcon 1 salvo of missions, along with two failures of its Falcon 9 rocket, the most recent ahead of the latest mission – its groundbreaking achievements have continued to push the company into the realm of space flight rock stars.

With major progress made in its reusability aspirations, the big ticket item was always Mars. Notably, both goals have become merged by relevant ambitions.

Armed with the driving force of Mr. Musk’s own personal wish to travel to the Red Planet, the official plans to create an in-house interplanetary launch system has been a closely guarded secret – bar the occasional tidbit via Elon’s twitter account.

Now, via a speech in Mexico, Mr. Musk has provided details into his roadmap to Mars.

Red Dragon:

SpaceX’s opening Mars missions will involve the launch of the Red Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy in 2018 and in every Mars rendezvous launch window thereafter.

The Falcon Heavy rocket’s capabilities have already been described as capable of a wide range of solar system missions. Mr. Musk also showed how his new Mars ship would share such a capability.

Launching from the famous LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center – host of missions to the Moon and numerous Space Shuttle launches – the Falcon Heavy will propel an uncrewed Dragon 2 variant on a six month transit to the Red Planet.

2016-06-02-174405The Dragon will attempt a propulsive landing on the surface of Mars, creating a roadmap for Dragon Entry/Descent/Landing (EDL) with an approach that provides a vast learning curve that won interest from NASA – which will partner with the 2018 Red Dragon mission in return for SpaceX’s flight data.

NASA interest and praise was notable given the agency is a proven master at Mars EDL techniques, yet feels it can learn something more from SpaceX’s approach.

Now, SpaceX is planning Red Dragon missions every two years, refining its approach and laying the foundations for what is fully expected to be the first humans to venture to Mars.

Those humans will travel in a system called the ITS (Interplanetary Transport System). Although an actual name is yet to be set in stone, Mr. Musk does like the idea of calling the first ITS “Heart Of Gold” per his usual hat tip to sci-fi books.

ITS Rocket:

Previously, and somewhat lovingly, tagged the BFR (Big ‘F-word’ Rocket), the huge launch vehicle tasked with lofting the supersized crew transport en route to Mars is a monster.

2016-09-27-191300The Super Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (SHLV) with a 12 meter (39.4 ft) booster diameter, a 17 meter (55.8 ft) spaceship diameter, and a 122 meter (400 ft) stack height will be powered by its family of Raptor engines.

Testing of this rocket engine has been incremental, first via component testing at the famous testing facility at the Stennis Space Center (SSC), before an actual test level engine made the trip to SpaceX’s own test site in McGregor, Texas.

It – in somewhat good timing – conducted its first short test firing just this week.

“I’m surprised it didn’t blow up,” joked Musk in reference to the speed at which the team managed to get the engine to fire up ahead of the IAC.

2016-09-27-190524The “full flow methane-liquid oxygen” rocket engine has been tweaked throughout its planning stage, initially believed to be part of a nine-engine core.

Mr. Musk and his team have since settled on the option of numerous engines, likely aiding engine out issues and the return/turnaround of the stage back to the launch site.

In all, 42 Raptor engines – each capable of 3,042 kN per engine (684K lbf) – will power the booster stage, with another nine (six mains and three sea-level engines) on the second stage that is effectively the crew transport stage.

The power rating is just short of 29 million pounds of thrust. The Saturn V moon rocket had a thrust level of just short of 8 million pounds.

2016-09-27-190437The rocket is built from a carbon fiber skin as its primary structure. It also utilizes gasified propellant and uses that for pressurization of its propellant tanks and for its Reaction Control System (RCS), which would remove the need for helium – which has been troublesome for SpaceX.

The rocket is shown to be launching from SpaceX’s 39A launch site, which was in doubt based on its thrust margins. However, the rocket is close to the limitations of the pad’s 28 million pound parameter and is likely to be provided with a level of pad engineering mitigation to allow ITS to launch from this site.

Mr. Musk also noted that the promotional video shows a vehicle that was more than just an artistic impression.

“It will look almost exactly like that. The video was created from SpaceX CAD models”

2016-09-27-222527The mission profile calls for a two launch outline, first launching the crew transport into a parking orbit prior to the booster stage returning to the launch site – and directly on to its launch mount at 39A – before undergoing a prop loading cycle.

A tanker craft is then mated atop of the booster, at the pad, ahead of launching to the awaiting crew transport for on-orbit refueling.

This tanker trip profile may call for numerous re-fuelling efforts, not least as the “fleet” prepares to leave for Mars.

“The Mars Colonial Fleet will leave together. A bit like (that seen in) Battlestar Galactica – great show,” added Elon.

Mr. Musk added that 100 people will take the trip in each ship, but that crew size may expand to 200 – to reduce costs.

ITS Spacecraft:

The crew transporter was always going to be ambitious, with preliminary designs calling for a vehicle capable of transporting a large amount of passengers to a Mars base – albeit in the future once a base had been created to support the arrivals.

2016-09-27-204026The spacecraft is designed with comfort in mind for the passengers, with facilities that even include a restaurant in what appears to be a spacey environment and a front window with a stunning view.

“Really fun to go. You’ll have a great time,” said Musk.

Per the cost projections, Mr. Musk is pushing for a cost per ticket less than $200,000 – aiming for a customer who may wish to save up, sell their house and move to Mars.

2016-09-27-203642The craft is both a full second stage as well as transfer ship, with the tankage and engines at the base of the vehicle and passengers in the upper decks.

As with the booster, only the center engines gimbal. The remaining engines are fixed in position. The amount of engines on both stages aid redundancy.

It will undergo the trip to Mars before using its PICA Thermal Protection System (TPS) to aerobrake into the Mars atmosphere before conducting a landing burn.

As to when the first vehicles will take the trip to Mars, that remains fluid. However, Mr. Musk showed a slide that pointed to missions beginning in the 2020s, on a timeline that is over 10 years ahead of when NASA expects to send crews to Mars.

Mars Base:

Notable in the presentation was not just Mr. Musk’s desire to colonize Mars, but specifically to make the Martian colony a self-sustaining human civilization – one that is not reliant in any way on Earth.

In this way, humanity will truly become a multiplanetary species.

2016-09-27-224949Importantly, Mr. Musk elaborated on what this self-sustaining human Mars society would look like in order to be truly self-sustaining.

The Mars colony itself would need to have a minimum of one million residents – something that would clearly necessitate a large number of flights of SpaceX’s ITS and, perhaps, serious consideration and effort toward terraforming Mars.

While terraforming was not part of Mr. Musk’s presentation, it was nonetheless a key background player to the announcement – as the graphics of Mars clearly showed an evolving, green and watery Mars.

2016-09-27-210406However, an element of Mr. Musk’s presentation that holds great importance for not just a Mars colony but other destinations as well was an overview of what this new ITS could do in terms of opening up the entirety of the solar system as our figurative backyard.

At the close of the presentation, Mr. Musk noted the ability of the ITS to autonomously land and take off from any solid body in the solar system.

Of particular note, specific locations like the Saturnian moon Enceladus, the Jovian moon Europa, various Kuiper Belt objects, and the far-out Oort Cloud all featured as potential destinations that the ITS and SpaceX could take humanity to.

While Mr. Musk was quick to note that the ITS now under development would not be a prime candidate for interstellar travel, he was confident and energetic that humanity’s next steps out of the solar system would be built on the back of the innovation that will come as humanity takes not just a few footsteps on Mars, but makes its giant leap of living on another planet.

Images: SpaceX, IAC 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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