On Tuesday Elon Musk revealed SpaceX’s Interplanetary Colonial Transporter, the launch system the company hope will make their ambitious Mars plans a reality.
Talking to an engaged audience at the International Astronautical Congress meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, the SpaceX CEO discussed in great length how he hopes the colonisation of Mars will take place over the coming decades.
Although Musk didn’t delve into the technical details of the plans, we were easily able to get a good idea of the scale of the project. He noted each spaceship would be home to between 100 and 200 people, and there could be potentially up to a thousand ships leaving Earth to the Red Planet at every window of opportunity.
The rocket will stand taller and wider than any rocket has ever done before. Measuring 122 metres in height and 12 metres in diameter, the historic Saturn V rocket, that launched mankind to the Moon in the late 60s and early 70s, would simply be dwarfed in comparison.
Tickets to Mars will be in the region of $200,000. Musk said the only way a ticket could be that cheap is if four main concepts were abided to. These methods include using reusable rockets, in-orbit refuelling, the use of methane fuel, and the ability to produce fuel on Mars.
The key feature of the ITS’ rocket booster is its reusability. Like the Falcon 9 rockets of today, the scaled up version of the booster will also need to perform landings and relaunches to keep costs down and provide maximum cadence. Unlike the Falcon 9, the ITS booster won’t need landing legs. Instead it will land exactly where it launched from, and the pad will help guide it to a safe resting point. From there, refilling of the booster can begin soon after.
Musk also highlighted the use of in-orbit refuelling as a key element of the system. Two types of spaceships would be created, one for human payloads and another for fuel payloads. The manned spaceship would be launched into space, then refuelled by a tanker in space later on. This would maintain the ability to send the maximum payload to Mars, which SpaceX estimate to be around 450T in mass.
The major issue the company is facing is money. It won’t surprise you to hear that a rocket and spaceship of this magnitude is going to cost a lot, and Musk knows it is going to be hard to get funding for it. With a rough estimation of $10 billion, SpaceX will need to run up funding from public sources such as NASA, but also private sources like sponsorships.
“I know there’s a lot of people in the private sector interested in funding a trip to Mars, hopefully there will be interest in the government side as well,” Musk said. “Ultimately this will be a huge private-public partnership.”
Musk believes that it could take up to 100 years for his dream of a self-sustaining Martian civilisation to become reality. Initially the first flights to Mars will be unmanned, with Red Dragon missions taking place in 2018 and 2020. SpaceX hope to begin colonial missions as early as the mid-2020s, however Musk admitted this schedule may be optimistic.
Ever since the formation of SpaceX in 2002, CEO and founder Elon Musk has had his eye on Mars. SpaceX’s first venture into space came with the Falcon 1 rocket, a relatively small liquid-propellant rocket which reached orbit for the first time in 2008. Following on from that success, the company developed the Falcon 9 rocket capable of lifting their very own Dragon capsule to the ISS. The Falcon 9 has remained the workhorse of SpaceX, and has been upgraded throughout its operational lifetime.
Recent developments have focused on the reusability of rockets, that Musk says are an essential for the Mars goal to be realised. By reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, the cost of each rocket will drop dramatically, reducing the cost of access to space. Landing legs and grid fins were added to the Falcon 9 rocket, and despite several failed landing attempts at sea, the booster finally touched down in December 2015 following the launch of ORBCOMM-2.
The IAC talk came at a rough time for SpaceX. Following the Amos-6 anomaly at the start of the month, the company has had to postpone launches while the team investigate the causes of the incident. Musk stated after the event that they were still having trouble finding a solution, noting it has been the “most vexing and difficult thing”.
With the Mars plans now laid out for the world to admire, we’ll just have to wait and see if these magnificent plans come to fruition.