Space

Musk says travel to Mars will be like "Battlestar Galactica," cost around $100,000

Musk says travel to Mars will ...
Elon Musk wants to make humanity multi-planetary
Elon Musk wants to make humanity multi-planetary
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Booster statistics
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Booster statistics
A comparison between Earth and Mars that Musk showed while he was making the case to colonize the Red Planet
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A comparison between Earth and Mars that Musk showed while he was making the case to colonize the Red Planet
A cutaway view of the booster and spacecraft
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A cutaway view of the booster and spacecraft
The white bars in this chart indicate what Musk called the size efficiency of various rockets. In most cases, he pointed out, the performance bar is only a small proportion of the rocket. In the case of the Mars vehicle, it is larger. "It's the first time a rocket's performance bar will actually exceed the physical size of the rocket," he said.
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The white bars in this chart indicate what Musk called the size efficiency of various rockets. In most cases, he pointed out, the performance bar is only a small proportion of the rocket. In the case of the Mars vehicle, it is larger. "It's the first time a rocket's performance bar will actually exceed the physical size of the rocket," he said.
A look at how SpaceX's Raptor engines will be arranged on the bottom of the rocket
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A look at how SpaceX's Raptor engines will be arranged on the bottom of the rocket
Musk said that with the new rocket/spacecraft combination, trips throughout the Solar System from Mars will be possible
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Musk said that with the new rocket/spacecraft combination, trips throughout the Solar System from Mars will be possible
One of the newly created fuel tank prototypes for the booster rocket
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One of the newly created fuel tank prototypes for the booster rocket
A look inside the fuel tank. While the interior surface looks faceted, Musk said it's actually completely smooth. The effect is created by the carbon fiber from which the tank is made.
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A look inside the fuel tank. While the interior surface looks faceted, Musk said it's actually completely smooth. The effect is created by the carbon fiber from which the tank is made.
The rocket next to a human being in the lower right
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The rocket next to a human being in the lower right
While the initial flights will depart from Cape Canaveral, Musk said SpaceX may eventually build another launch pad on the south coast of Texas
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While the initial flights will depart from Cape Canaveral, Musk said SpaceX may eventually build another launch pad on the south coast of Texas
An illustration of how the operation will proceed
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An illustration of how the operation will proceed
The rocket will accelerate to 8,500 km/h (5,282 mph)
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The rocket will accelerate to 8,500 km/h (5,282 mph)
Musk showed this slide to put the size of Earth and Mars (third and fourth from the left) in perspective
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Musk showed this slide to put the size of Earth and Mars (third and fourth from the left) in perspective
A comparison of fuel types with the third column indicating the chosen propellant, methane
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A comparison of fuel types with the third column indicating the chosen propellant, methane
The test firing of one of the Raptor engines
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The test firing of one of the Raptor engines
Details on the Raptor engine
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Details on the Raptor engine
Cutaway of the space capsule
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Cutaway of the space capsule
An artist's impression of how the view out of the space capsule at Mars might look
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An artist's impression of how the view out of the space capsule at Mars might look
Musk showed this slide to emphasize how important it is to have reusable craft in the space program. If Boeing could only use their 737 one time, the price per ticket would be US$500,000.
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Musk showed this slide to emphasize how important it is to have reusable craft in the space program. If Boeing could only use their 737 one time, the price per ticket would be US$500,000.
A comparison of the SpaceX rocket to Saturn V
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A comparison of the SpaceX rocket to Saturn V
Elon Musk wants to make humanity multi-planetary
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Elon Musk wants to make humanity multi-planetary

At a presentation today, SpaceX founder Elon Musk basically said that his life's mission is to make humans an interplanetary species. "The main reason I'm personally accumulating assets is in order to fund this," he said at the 67th annual International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico. "So I really don't have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets except to be able to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary." In addition to reinforcing his passion and commitment to Mars travel (which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who follows space news), Musk also laid out his plan to get humanity to the Red Planet in great detail.

Here are some highlights and quotes from the hour-plus presentation.

Orbital refueling for the Mars Colonial Fleet

Unlike other space-going vessels, the SpaceX ship that will make the journey to Mars will first be launched into a stable orbit around Earth. The booster rocket that puts it there will then return to the launch site to pick up a fuel tank, which will deliver fuel to the craft in orbit and likewise return to Earth. The ship itself will then blast off to Mars.

The actual launch process is dramatically detailed in this video, which was released today to coincide with Musk's presentation.

SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System

While the video shows just one capsule leaving for Mars, Musk today said that it's more likely that an armada of ships would head off to the Red Planet. "Over time there will many spaceships," he said. "You'd ultimately have upwards of, I think, a thousand or more spaceships waiting in orbit. And so the Mars Colonial Fleet would depart en masse, kind of like 'Battlestar Galactica.'"

Move to Mars for less than US$100,000

As you might expect from the former CEO of PayPal, Musk said that one of the key components of SpaceX's plan is bringing the cost down, which we've heard from him before. Flights to the Red Planet need to be made attractive and relatively affordable in order to make the project viable, he said. To do this, Musk laid out a four-part plan that includes the aforementioned refueling in space, along with full reusability, choosing the right propellant, and manufacturing that propellant on Mars.

As we saw repeatedly this year, SpaceX has made great progress in the reusability arena regarding the safe return of its Falcon 9 booster rockets. Musk said that kind of thinking will continue in the Mars program, with the booster able to make an estimated 1,000 launches and returns over the course of its lifespan. He also indicated that the tanker that will refuel the ships would be able to operate for about 100 times.

Musk showed this slide to emphasize how important it is to have reusable craft in the space program. If Boeing could only use their 737 one time, the price per ticket would be US$500,000.
Musk showed this slide to emphasize how important it is to have reusable craft in the space program. If Boeing could only use their 737 one time, the price per ticket would be US$500,000.

As for the propellant, Musk said that SpaceX has decided to go with methane, a decision that was actually announced several years ago. The fuel choice again contributes to lower costs and also helps with the fourth pillar of affordability – the ability to manufacture it once on Mars. Using the planet's CO2 and water ice stores, SpaceX believes a methane-manufacturing plant could be set up there that uses the Sabatier reaction, which converts those two compounds into methane gas and water using high pressure, high temperature and a nickel catalyst.

Thanks to all of these cost-reduction methods, Musk said that the average price of moving to Mars – including luggage and life support – could come in below US$100,000.

Hardest first

As for the booster itself, which Musk said is a scaled-up Falcon 9, SpaceX decided to start by designing the most difficult components first – the Raptor engines that will power it.

A look at how SpaceX's Raptor engines will be arranged on the bottom of the rocket
A look at how SpaceX's Raptor engines will be arranged on the bottom of the rocket

"This is going to be the highest chamber-pressure engine of any kind and probably the highest thrust-to-weight," he said. "It's a full-flow stage-combustion engine which maximizes the theoretical momentum you can get out of a given source of fuel.

"We sub-cool the oxygen or methane to densify it," he continued. "Propellants are used close to their boiling points in most rockets, in our case we actually load the propellants close to their freezing points and that can result in a density improvement of up to 10-12 percent, which makes an enormous difference in the actual results of the rocket."

The booster, which will accelerate the spacecraft to 8,500 km/h (5,282 mph), will contain 42 of the company's raptor engines, seven of which will be gimbaled in the center for steering purposes. The high number of engines, Musk said, will be in part for redundancy so that if any of them fail to function, the mission could still continue safely.

Musk showed footage of the rocket being fired at the presentation and thanked his SpaceX staff for getting it operational before the conference.

The test firing of one of the Raptor engines
The test firing of one of the Raptor engines

A million Martians

As for the size of an eventual Mars city, Musk indicated that a million inhabitants felt about right. To get there, he said that the spaceships, which will hold 100 people each, would obviously need to make thousands of flights. Because the ships could only be sent about once every two years when Earth and Mars are at their closest, Musk estimated that it would take between 40 to 100 years for the fully self-sustaining settlement to be established. He also noted that he expects the size of the spacecraft to eventually be able to hold up to 200 people.

Fun and games

Musk said that depending on the particular Earth/Mars rendezvous that passengers wanted to catch, the trip time while traveling at six kilometers (3.7 miles) per second would be about 88 days. "Ultimately I'd suspect you'd see Mars transit times in as little as 30 days in the more distant future. So it's fairly manageable considering the trips that people used to do in the old days, such as sailing voyages that would take six months or more."

So what will people do during that time?

"In order to make it appealing … it's got to be really fun and exciting," Musk said. "And it can't feel cramped or boring. So the occupant compartment is such that you can do zero-g games, you can float around, there'll be movies, lecture halls and a restaurant. It'll be like, really fun to go. You'll have a great time."

A look inside the fuel tank. While the interior surface looks faceted, Musk said it's actually completely smooth. The effect is created by the carbon fiber from which the tank is made.
A look inside the fuel tank. While the interior surface looks faceted, Musk said it's actually completely smooth. The effect is created by the carbon fiber from which the tank is made.

2002, A space odyssey

When speaking about the history of SpaceX and how far it's come, Musk said that in 2002 he thought the company really only had about a ten percent chance of accomplishing its goals. But that didn't dampen his drive.

"I came to the conclusion that if there wasn't some new entrant into the space arena, with a strong ideological motivation, then it didn't seem like we were on a trajectory to ever be a space-based civilization and to be out there amongst the stars," he said. "In '69 we were able to go to the moon, and then the space shuttle could get to low-Earth orbit, and then space shuttle got retired, so the trend line is down to zero.

"I think what a lot of people don't appreciate is that technology doesn't automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of really strong engineering talent is applied to the problem. And there are many examples in history where people have reached a certain technology level and have fallen well below that and then recovered only millennia later."

For more of Musk's thoughts on SpaceX's Mars program and a look at many of the slides shown during the presentation, scroll through the images in the photo gallery.

The full presentation can be viewed below.

Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species

20 comments
Racqia Dvorak
I like this guy's attitude, but Mars is really a waste of resources. It's just not feasible from a total terraforming standpoint and if you're going to live in tunnels and habitats, then the Moon is so much closer and easier to work with.
Fritz
Musk, Musk, Musk, this guy just got the possibility to attract all the interest of journalists, leaving outstanding innovation overseen. BUT Finally, I start liking this men. Why? Because he is one of the very view who is not mainly in surveillance, big data, military money burning, bothering people business. Even if many ideas I have seen already in the abandoned journal Hobby - Magazin der Technik 45 - 50 years ago he is at least trying to improve humanity while many other just drag us down. It is humanity to fly to Mars - because it is there - and beyond. Good luck Mrs Musk.
Nik
My only reservation; I probably wont live long enough to see it all happen.
LukaPotočnik
I dont know where you got the 100000$ number or if u even watched the thing.. but he said it will be and i quote ''the price of median home which is around 200000$''
WriterMike
Hi Luka. Thanks for your close reading of the article. The figure comes from this direct quote of Musk's: "We're estimating about $140,000 per ton to the surface of Mars. So if a person and luggage is less than, counting food consumption and life support, then we think the cost of moving to Mars ultimately could drop below $100,000." You can find it around the 45-minute mark in the presentation.
pwndecaf
When Earth's population is down to 2 billion of worthy people, flights will only be necessary to maintain that number. Illuminati - oops!
Calson
Elon Musk clearly had a very narrow education that has enabled him to produce a battery powered car but not to be able to understand that space exploration is by humans is a waste of resources and a distraction from the ongoing degradation of mother earth. Explorers throughout the millenia traveled to new places that were habitable. They had air and water and food sources and these did not need to be transported by the explorers. They could create a viable colony though they required a local exploitable population whose food they could take by force in the interim. This model cannot be exported to another planet. Entire civilizations have come and gone and the going has been the result of environmental changes that were often the result of deforestation and the resulting micro climate changes (though macro enough to cover an entire region as with the Middle East where forests were turned into deserts).
habakak
If the 'martians' can 't provide energy (and thus everything else from there - most importantly especially initially would be rocket fuel, oxygen, water, ability to grow food and safe habitats) they will always be dependent on re-supply from the earth (like the ISS) and it does not make us multi-planetary. The first order of business would be get energy production started to produce fuel, then oxygen and water. To do this, we need highly automated robots, and we are a few decades away from robots that can build a energy generation plant (install solar panels), build a rocket fuel plant and build or put together a habitat (inflatable habitats would be the easiest) with oxygen & water supply (off course electricity, air conditioning and sewerage processing would be necessary too). Not to mention food production, processing and also medical care. It was relatively easy to do this on the Western Frontier or anywhere on earth when people were exploring the earth. Yeah, no, it was super hard, but very easy compared to doing this in an environment with no oxygen, water, lower gravity, no soil to grow food or farm/hunt animals and so cold the warmest summer day is around the freezing point of water. Yes, initially re-supply missions can handle food, medical products, etc. But the energy, rocket fuel, oxygen, water, heating and cooling production systems needs to be in place when the first settlers get there. I imagine the plan is have them live inside the spaceship, but what kind of colonizing is that? You need robots to build the infrastructure first.
GizEngineer
"Highly detailed?" Not really, but hard to estimate this far away. And a 42 engine booster? Does that scale up linearly or exponentially with problems? Thanks for thinking big, but good luck!
El Bonko
Sometimes proponents of capitalism argue that socialism could never work because it's in man's nature to be selfish. I think that is in fact more apt as an argument against capitalism, and Elon Musk demonstrates it perfectly. Imagine how amazing the world would be if more than a tiny fraction of capitalists shared his vision and sense of responsibility in areas not related to the bottom line, or market dominance, or stock prices. We'd perhaps see less of a rush to destroy communities, lives and ecosystems for the sake of a prettier quarterly report. As it is, the world is largely run by people motivated by little more than avarice for its own sake. It seems that kind of scum is what most often floats to the top in corporate culture. Musk is unfortunately very much an anomaly.