Last week SpaceX announced its plans to send a rocket to Mars as soon as 2018. The expectation is that the mission(s) to Mars would use the Falcon Heavy rocket, a beefier version of the Falcon 9 that stuck its second consecutive barge landing very early today (Friday). More on that in a moment. On top of the Falcon Heavy would be the Red Dragon, a modified version of the company’s Dragon modules that have ferried cargo to the International Space Station.
Neither the Falcon Heavy nor the Red Dragon have been launched as yet. So the goal of 2018 is aggressive, and heavily dependent on no serious failures in the testing to come. However, Falcon Heavy uses 3 Falcon 9 cores in its first stage and the same Merlin engine as the Falcon 9 for the second stage. So the testing is more critical around the whole configuration rather than individual components. Additionally, the 2018 mission (and those to come) would be tests in and of themselves. Flying a Dragon to Mars would allow SpaceX to test the ability to land large payloads on the red planet, paving the way to Musk’s ultimate goal of landing people on Mars.
Details on the 2018 missions are scarce, and for me one of the most important is the financing. A lot of the testing for the Falcon 9 rocket – specifically the landing of the reusable first stage – was done through flights that SpaceX had contracted with NASA and other entities needing launch services. Presumably SpaceX can line up the launch contracts to help support those tests, and might be waiting on those contracts before giving additional details about the Mars mission(s).
And then there’s the landing, the second consecutive barge landing of the first stage of a Falcon 9. The company wasn’t too confident about sticking this landing, mainly because the rocket would be coming in with less fuel because it was used to put a satellite in geostationary orbit. That orbit is much farther out than the orbits used for the International Space Station and most satellites. So the margin for error, or the ability to make course corrections, is constrained by comparison. To be sure, two successful landings do not yet constitute a pattern, but it’s lovely to see some science fiction technology come to life.