Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the most ambitious company ever in history. Their ambitious plans could launch humans toward Mars as early as 2024.
Launching things into space used to be the domain of government agencies working with large aerospace contractors. But not anymore. In 2012, SpaceX became the first private company to send a cargo ship to the International Space Station. The space company now delivers cargo to the ISS regularly.
In 2020, SpaceX became the first private company to launch astronauts to the space station during its historic Demo-2 mission. This trip to the ISS was the first from the USA since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. It was also the first time NASA astronauts have launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station.
However, the goals of Elon Musk don’t end here. SpaceX is currently building a giant new rocket system that could soon carry people to Mars. The company was founded with that goal in mind.
In an interview with Axel Springer in Berlin, Elon Musk said that he’s “highly confident” SpaceX will launch people toward the Red Planet in 2026. He added that the milestone could come as early as 2024 “if we get lucky.”
A trip to Mars ultimately depends on being able to fly to Mars safely, land and survive on the planet, refuel, and then fly home to Earth again.
SpaceX’s vision is to build cities on Mars and have a large and growing population there.
The vehicle SpaceX sees as the workhorse for such a city is the Starship, powered by the Super Heavy booster.
Starship will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever. It has the ability to carry over 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit.
Starship can be used for both Earth suborbital point-to-point flights and deep-space missions such as to the moon and Mars.
The full version will feature six Raptor engines, stand about 165 feet tall, and have a 100-passenger capacity.
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The large version of Starship would be coupled with a Super Heavy booster with 37 Raptor engines combined for Mars colonization plans.
While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are partially reusable, Musk aims to make Starship fully reusable. This is similar to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights where the only major cost is fuel.
Super Heavy will return to Earth for vertical touchdowns shortly after liftoff. And Starship will be able to fly from Earth orbit to Mars and back again many times.
Engineers designed Starship to travel to Mars, refuel, and then blast off again for Earth or another destination.
SpaceX fired up its latest Starship prototype this week. Thus, keeping the vehicle on track for a high-altitude test flight in the coming days.
Together the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket create a reusable transportation system capable of on-orbit refueling and leveraging Mars’ natural H2O and CO2 resources to refuel on the surface of Mars.
SpaceX team hopes the pair will come together rapidly enough that the company could consider launching the first uncrewed test missions to Mars during the 2022 window of opportunity. Mars aligns with Earth favorably for spacecraft missions every 26 months.
When Starship reaches Mars’ it will enter the red planet’s atmosphere at 7.5 kilometers per second and decelerate aerodynamically. Engineers designed the vehicle’s heat shield to withstand multiple entries.
The Martian atmosphere is very thin. Thus, traditional landing techniques like a parachute system are not enough to keep vessels from crashing into Mars’ surface. NASA has already developed entry, descent, and landing systems for its Mars rover missions. But a rover is a relatively small payload if we compare it to a space shuttle.
Curiosity rover weighed a ton, but NASA predicts crewed landers would weigh in at about 20 metric tons, so there will need to be some tweaks before the agency can be sure a crewed lander would make it.
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If Musk’s projections are correct, SpaceX’s first Mars mission would launch in the same year that NASA astronauts return to the moon under the Artemis program. SpaceX is also planning to fly space tourists on a Starship mission around the moon in 2023. NASA has also picked SpaceX as one of three commercial teams to develop moon landers for the Artemis program.
Nevertheless, SpaceX hopes to trim the Mars journey to below six months long — perhaps even as short as four months — to reduce the radiation that humans would be exposed to during the journey.
Among the first tasks for Starship missions would be mapping the availability and accessibility of the raw materials for fuel, so humans would have a way to get back home to Earth.
The company’s landing site heavily depends on the resources. They are focusing on two potential areas, one near Arcadia Planitia and Erebus Montes and the other near Phlegra Montes. They are in the middle swath of the planet where it’s easier to land and they’re at lower elevations, so the thicker atmosphere will do more of the work to slow an incoming spacecraft. There also seems to be lots of ice nearby.
But who gets to go to the red planet? Musk said a city on Mars will be sustainable once one million people both want and can afford to go to the Red Planet. In other words, the first Martians will probably be among the richest Earthlings.
However, before the trip happens there are dangers that humans need to overcome. Some of these include exposure to space radiation, isolation and confinement, distance from Earth, low gravity on Mars, and the hostile environment on Mars.
There is indeed a lot of work ahead but one thing is for sure, space exploration is uniting humanity.