The space race is heating up!
In a shocking announcement made on Wednesday (April 27), Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX divulged on Twitter that it plans to send a spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.
Check out the Tweet below:
Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 27, 2016
In an agreement made with NASA, the mission named “Red Dragon” will send a Dragon 2 spacecraft to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Mars rover and then return them to Earth.
“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,” Musk said in a NASA Spaceflight news release.
Using Falcon Heavy, located at SpaceX’s Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Dragon — an unmanned spacecraft — will be capable of transporting two to four tons of weight to the surface of Mars, as well as other potential 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,” Musk explained. “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.”
According to ScienceAlert, SpaceX plans to land on Mars using a simple approach that has never been tried before.
Since Mars’ atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth’s, simple parachutes won’t slow the spacecraft down enough to land safely. However, the atmosphere is thick enough to generate an immense amount of heat from friction against the spacecraft. In order to land on Mars, the craft has to be equipped with a heat shield that can withstand temperatures of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (871 degrees Celsius).
Luckily, Dragon’s heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius), so landing on Mars, as shown in the image below, shouldn't be a problem heat-wise.
Concept art of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft being sent to Mars. Photo credit: SpaceX (CC0)
The main problem arises when trying to slow the spacecraft down. Although Mars has gravity that is about one-third of what it is here on Earth, the rocket will still be plummeting toward the ground at over 1,000 miles per hour (1,609 kilometers per hour).
In order to slow the spacecraft down, SpaceX plans to install thrusters to first redirect its momentum from downwards to sideways, and as the spacecraft continues toward the surface, it will fire thrusters one more time in order to have a gentle, vertical landing.
Although the technology is not quite ready for human passengers just yet, this is a major step in the area of space exploration.
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