Either Elon Musk really, really can't wait to get to Mars or the engineers working for him are building the necessary technologies a bit faster than expected. In any case, SpaceX has just announced plans to have one of its Dragon spacecraft on its way to the Red Planet as soon as 2018, four years earlier than anticipated.
NASA currently has unmanned rovers trawling the surface of Mars for signs of life, but if some of that red rock could be hauled back and prodded by scientists in fully equipped laboratories here on Earth the search may become more fruitful. NASA is preparing to send another rover to Mars in 2020 that will collect rock and soil samples, but the agency had no ironclad plan for how these might be returned to Earth.
Enter SpaceX and its unmanned Dragon capsule, which made history in 2012 as the first commercial spacecraft to carry cargo to the ISS and also return cargo to Earth. SpaceX had been at looking at modifying the Dragon spacecraft as an unmanned lander for the Martian surface, and last year this idea piqued the interest of NASA researchers.
Under a NASA proposal, the Red Dragon lander would ride on SpaceX's soon-to-be-completed Falcon Heavy rocket on a launch originally slated for 2022, then bring samples collected by the rover back to Earth for study. With the Falcon Heavy due for completion and maiden lift-off later this year, SpaceX has now revealed plans to send the Red Dragon into space within a couple of short years.
It is not yet clear how this fits in with NASA's timeline and plans to collect its rock samples, but SpaceX says Red Dragons will begin laying early groundwork for eventual colonization of Mars.
"Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018, Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture, details to come," SpaceX tweeted earlier today.
Musk also weighed in from his personal Twitter account, adding that the "Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight." He also revealed that the updated Dragon has cabin space roughly equal to an SUV (suggesting that it would be uncomfortable for long haul manned flights).
If all goes to plan, the Red Dragon will touch down on the Martian surface using SpaceX's SuperDraco thruster. This 3D-printed component also serves as the capsule's launch emergency escape system and is designed to allow powered landings with the precision of a helicopter.
With a series of successful resupply missions to the ISS under its belt, SpaceX is working on a version of Dragon that can take astronauts along for the ride. Manned test flights are expected to start in two to three years, with Musk publicly stating that human missions to Mars could commence by around 2025.